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It is fitting for this blog to be discussing the Hong Kong Occupy movement because that has been the hot topic right now. Hotter still is an open letter written by a head of a denominational seminary there (whose name will remain anonymous, let the readers understand) who argues for the separation of church and state as a part of the excuse for non-involvement in the dialogue on social justice. He cites Matthew and Mark on rendering to Caesar taxes as the proof texts for separation of church and state as well as political laissez faire. He basically says that due to the separation of the church and state, the church must remain completely neutral in the present state of affairs.  It is my honor and privilege to inform him that his proof text is blatantly WRONG. This blog will look at what such a text mean.

The Passage

In Mark 12.13-17, Jesus told the Pharisees and Herodians to give to Caesar what was Caesar’s and God what was God’s. The great irony of this account is the cooperation between groups that were originally not always friends. The Pharisees had led Judaism in Jesus’ day. The Herodians were the Caesar’s mid-level managers in the Judea area. Jesus’ ministries had brought potential enemies together. The passage itself shows that the two parties were trying to catch Jesus at his words. Jesus’ action was only to avoid getting caught with the words and nothing else. The Jews did not look upon Caesar’s image too kindly. Caesar was not merely the colonist who took over the Jewish land, but his image on a coin amounted to a kind of veneration given rightly to a divine being.

Although we may question whether full-blown Caesar worship existed in the time of Jesus or whether such veneration really attributed divine status to Caesar as coins seem to indicate, Jesus’ answer points out the tension without compromising either politically or religiously because Jesus’ answer can move either direction. First, He satisfied their inquiry by saying to give to the image of the coin. Second, He said to give to God what was God’s. In other words, Jesus was saying, “Why don’t you think about what is God’s? Then give accordingly.” It is an enigmatic answer that doesn’t provide a clear and direct answer.  This reply satisfied their inquiry of whether any of the money goes to God or to religious institution. We simply can’t make doctrine out of such a statement by Jesus. Its sarcasm is also quite pointed because the Pharisees surely knew that everything belonged to YHWH their God.  Yet, they themselves could not go further to state that everything ought to go to God.  The presence of Herodian would jeopardize the safety of these Pharisees.  By not going further and saying, “Everything belongs to YHWH. Does it not?  We have no king but YHWH,” the Pharisees were caught in their own trap.  The Pharisees lack of response to Jesus’ enigmatic shows their difficulty.  Jesus, by this ironic answer, actually pointed out the Pharisees’ own dereliction of duty to YHWH.  In Mark, in fact, this discussion was part of the greater conflicts with religious leaders that ran pretty much through Mark 12 climaxing with Jesus’ condemnation of the oppression of widows which I have already discussed in my previous blog post (but on the Lukan version) and book as well as my preaching. In the audience of Mark, they were faced with their own religious issues of whether to stay completely within their faith community or to move out into a more Jesus-centered form of worship. These accounts only point fingers at the guilt of the original religious leaders.  I’ll discuss more of this in my upcoming commentary on Mark in Chinese, ready to publish next winter.

Matthew 22.21 has the parallel version of the same story. Matthew’s story makes explicit what was implicit. Matthew 22.18 points out clearly that the men had evil intent in asking the question. The rest is pretty much the same with the same confrontation about other issues with the religious leaders resulting in Jesus’ woes and eschatological discourse in Matthew 23-25. Certainly, Matthew’s audience not only had to deal with separation from their own religious community but also the final destruction of the temple. Matthew showed the fault of those who plotted Jesus’ death to encourage his own readers to reach out beyond the confine of their own circles into other groups (e.g. Matthew 28.18-20). It has nothing to do with separation of church and state. To milk separation of church and state out of it is nonsensical madness. It does nothing but increase the injustice that is in Hong Kong society.

The Background of the Coin

What if, for argument’s sake, we take what this head of a seminary say seriously?  We must look at what the coin actually says.  Now, if we follow the logic that Jesus approved unconditionally of the coin and thus advocated separation of church and state, then we need to look at what inscription Jesus was referring to and whose image Jesus was talking about. In order to understand the inscription, we must examine potential inscriptions that were on coins. Two general categories of inscriptions existed in the denarius in Jesus’ time. One proclaims that Caesar is somehow “divine”. The other proclaims Caesar to be Pontifex Maximus, a Latin way of calling someone the supreme leader. The best sample would come from the Tiberius coin where Tiberius is called the son of “divine Augustus”. In other words, Tiberius was a kind of “son of god”. On the opposite side of the coin had a picture of Livia, the wife of Augustus or the goddess Roma holding some kind of scepter to demonstrate her authority with the title of Pontifex Maximus. We can’t imagine Jesus agreeing to ALL of such political propaganda in his saying now, can we? To the Gospel writers, Jesus was the true Son of God. These other political sayings on the coin effectively went against everything that Jesus stood for. If we were to adopt the literal understanding without considering that Jesus was only using a clever rhetorical ploy, we are at risk of ruining our very theology in our desperate need to find proof texts for separation of church and state. Is it worth the risk to hijack Scripture in this way? As I always said, the problem is not the text. The problem is the interpreter!

PS. I’m not in favor of lousy scripture quotes, but I’m in favor of the separation of church and state principle as it was originally framed by Thomas Jefferson in his letter to Danbury Baptist Church:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties. I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.

Th Jefferson Jan. 1. 1802.