Mark 12.17: “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”
I saw a Facebook post today that read along the lines of: “Why don’t people value worship today anymore? We should be more concerned about giving the worship that is obligated to God than worrying about our health and well being?” On the surface of this, it sees to have a pious foundation to it: God is more important than our own lives, so we should risk ourselves for God. Doesn’t the Apostle Paul teach us that we should be living sacrifices? So, shouldn’t we really be worshipping in churches to give God what is due to Him rather than being concerned about coronavirus?
Now, I could try to critique the reasoning of this post and say that loving others is an important part of service, which I do think is part of the appropriate response. However, this response would not render asunder the a fundamentally flawed premise about our relationship to God: that the relationship between God and humanity is that of privilege and status by which those things that are obligated to God are more important than other human concerns. God is the chief who gets what is obligated to him before anyone else gets anything. Undergirding this line of reasoning about God is a particular understanding of what it means for God to be King, for Jesus to be Lord: to be the top dog. What God wants, God should get because God is God. To that end, it isn’t that much different from the realities living under the ancient Roman Empire: the Roman emperor was top dog and everyone was to give allegiance to him.
When Jesus is asked a question as to whether those under the Torah should pay taxes to Caesar in Mark 12.13-17, Jesus said “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Much has been said about this passage, but at this point it is needs only to be pointed out that it is very easy to read Jesus’ words as if he was saying there are two lines of obligations: Caesar and God. One may draw in one’s reading the conclusion that our relationship and response to God is to be understood similar to our relationship and response to a ruling figure.
We have seen this type of understanding of human relations to God throughout the history of the Church in which God and political rules are seen as being fundamentally of the same category of relations, which meant that there were in somehow in competition for each other. The kingdoms of this world are understood like vassal’s of God’s kingdom or the kingdoms fo this world, particularly the empires of this world, are diametrically opposed to God’s kingdom. Sometimes, however, to resolve this tension between the pragmatically felt necessity of obeying the political powers and ones’ devotion to Jesus, it was rationalized that these two kingdom were of two different domains that were not in competition with each other, an earthly kingdom and a ‘spiritual’ kingdom, thereby allowing people to neatly compartmentalize their ‘dual citizenship.’
However, what if our obligation to God do stand in competition with the desires of political powers, but not because our relationship to God and to people of high status is of the same nature, but because the very nature of the relationship between God and ruling figures is fundamentally different? Much has been made of what Jesus meant by “Render unto Caesar,” but not as much as been said about “Render unto God.” When Jesus addresses the question about taxes, it was a question that had the Torah in the background, as the Pharisees and Herodians feignedly stated that Jesus “taught the way of God in accordance with truth.”
In Exodus 20.1-6, God speaks of the relationship that is to be between Himself and Israel, where Israel is to have no others god before Him and God will respond to Israel based upon their love or rejection of Him. This is the relationship that defines what is to be rendered to God. However, the nature of this relationship is not grounded upon status or authority, but upon God’s redemption of Israel from slavery in Egypt. There is no inherent order of creation that commands “Worship God or else.” The relationship of God with His people is formed based upon God’s gracious deed to deliver and word to then bind the hearts of Israel to Him. Even this was not compelled upon Israel, but it was something that Israel committed to: “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Exo. 24.3). God and His people are bound together through grace, instruction, commitment, and faithful response.
While this is not explicit in what Jesus says in response to the question about taxes, it is perhaps implied by the contrasting instructions to Give to Caesar and Give to God that one’s relationship to God should not to be determined by one’s response to Caesar. Only insofar as one was idolatrously subservient to the person of Caesar through treasuring the coin he provided (Jesus does speak about money and idolatry!) is one failing to render to God what is due to Him. Giving his money in taxes is not failing to serve to God: in fact, it is how one actually protects oneself from idolatry and renders to God what is due to Him by not valuing the money but rather giving taxes back to Caesar.
The point: our relationship to God and our relation to figures of high status are not in inherent conflict. Similarly, our relationship to God and our ‘relation’ to ourselves and to others are not in inherent conflict. Just because we avoid worshipping in congregations due to coronavirus doesn’t mean we are failing to give to God what is due. God does not demand that He be the chief that gets what He wants before all other matters and concerns. But, as with Israel out of Egypt God is the one who redeems and invites us to put our trust and worship in Him, whether we are in congregations with others or not due to coronavirus. Rather, the primary concern is that because we love God, we are then called to love one another, including especially everyone else who follows Jesus. While this will usually mean that we should congregate together in worship, fellowship, mission, and service with fellow Christians, the reality of COVID-19 calls forth for us to honor our covenantal commitment to our Redeemer by being concerned for the well-being of others and acting accordingly.
From a psychological point of view, the mistake here is that we make the assumption that God fits within our mental models of other people that then leads us to see God and the human prototypes of that mental model as being in potential synergy or antagonism. Today, we see a similar assumption of the same mental models working out in how we view our relationship between God and parents on the assumption that the way one parents will determine how one sees God. Or, we draw the inference that the way people think other people see them is the way they think God sees them. In both of these cases, we risk putting the holy God under the same categories as specific type of people and overlook the possibility that a person may have different working models of God from that of other people, particularly if they have experienced and known God differently from that of other people.
God is other, and correspondingly, the relationship and response to God that the Scriptures speak to and that Jesus and the Holy Spirit demonstrae lead us towards will be a different from our mental models of how we relate to people, whether they be rulers, parents, spouses, etc. The Scriptures do recognize that there is some analogy between God and other people as the numerous titles and metaphors ascribe and use to describe God do suggest that we can understand God as somehow being like a human ruler, a parent, a spouse, etc., but none of these mental models are to ultimately determine and define the relationship of God to His People: God’s redemption in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit defines our relationship to God and, though this relationship, our relationship to other people.
So no, we are not obligated to relate to God the same way we are obligated to people of higher status and authority. We are not obligated to relate to God the same way we are obligated to our parents. We are not obligated to relate to God the same way we relate to a spouse. We are not obligated to relate to God the same way we relate to our church congregation. We are not obligated to relate to God the same way we relate to ourselves. Rather, in our unique obligation and relation to the holy God who redeems us, we allow our service to God to define also our service to others, even as we can recognize God through others and demonstrate our love for God by loving others in the various life circumstances we find ourselves in.