Friday, November 16, 2012

Give to God What Is God's

Jesus caused quite a stir when He started teaching in the Temple courtyard in Jerusalem. Chief Priests, Pharisees, elders, and Teachers of the Law were upset by this, and they questioned Him about His authority to teach. But Jesus circumnavigated their inquisition with a question of His own regarding John the Baptist (Matthew 21:23-27, Mark 11:27-33, Luke 20:1-8). He then rebuked them with a parable, accusing these leaders of not repenting and seeking righteousness (Matthew 21:28-32). Then He explained that the Kingdom of God would be taken from them, and instead given to others, through the Parable of the Wicked Tenants and the Parable of the Grand Banquet.

Give to God What Is God's
As a skeptic, it goes without saying that I see the Scriptures differently than a believer. While some believers may think that I just prowl around for looking for content that I can twist for my own desires, that is not at all what I do. There are many things I consider while reading, but I do try to find the honest intent in the verses. This perspective allows for interpretation without allegiance to any denominational doctrine, and occasionally yields insight not seen by others of the faith, such as with the enigmatic Kingdom-within-you verse. I think I may have stumbled on another one, a major one, which we will see in this study.

The religious elite were angry with Jesus after He targeted them with one or two scornful parables of condemnation. So, in Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17, and Luke 20:20-26, we find them trying to entrap Jesus into saying something against the Roman law. In particular, they were hoping that Jesus would say that you should not pay taxes to Caesar, a pagan authority. All three accounts are fairly similar, so let us take Luke 20:22-25 to read this anecdote's highlight together:
[They asked] "Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?"
[Jesus] saw through their duplicity and said to them, "Show Me a denarius (a Roman coin). Whose portrait and inscription are on it?"
"Caesar's," they replied.
He said to them, "Then give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." NIV
When you look at and hear Christian commentaries on this section, they focus a lot on the first half of Jesus' reply in contrasting it with the second half; how brilliant Jesus was in saying to give Caesar his own coinage back, and how we should give God what God deserves: respect, honor, worship, reverence, etc. While I would agree that such sentiment is on the right track, they fall woefully short of the full intent. To reach the full view, we must step back a verse, and back several books of the Bible.

You see, Jesus asked of the coin "Whose portrait and inscription are on it?" That is important when we are evaluating the second half of Jesus' reply; giving to God what is God's. The question we should ask is "what is God's?" From the parallelism of the denarius reference, to answer that question we should then ask what has God's image and inscription?

In Genesis 1:26-27 it states that mankind was made in God's image. So what about God's inscription? As we see in Deuteronomy 11:18 and Deuteronomy 30:14, His Law was written into the hearts and minds of the Jews:
Deuteronomy 11:18
Fix these words of Mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. NIV

Deuteronomy 30:14
No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. NIV

When you put this information together, it appears to me that Jesus' reply could accurately be rewritten as "Give Caesar his coins because, according to their markings, they are his. But you belong to God, so give yourself completely to God." This is a consistent message in much of the Gospels: give up your wealth and forsake the world in favor of unfaltering devotion to God.

I am not sure why Christian exegesis misses this point of view. Perhaps it is an honest oversight. Perhaps it is avoided because of the implication that the original message was just for the Jews. Or perhaps I am the one in error here.

We will close out this study with a quick look at the changes made by the Gospel authors.

Mark 12:13 claims that it was the Pharisees themselves, working with Herodians (Roman sympathizers), who tried to entrap Jesus. Matthew 22:15-16 records that the Pharisees had sent their students (disciples), instead of themselves, along with the Herodians, to entrap Jesus. Luke 20:19-20 suggests that the Teachers of the Law and the Chief Priests sent spies to do this dirty work, and does not mention the Herodians at all. So Matthew somewhat and Luke blatantly play out entrapment more surreptitiously than Mark does; perhaps to make the religious elite seem all the more vile for not trying to trap Jesus themselves.

Mark 12:15 and Matthew 22:18 both have Jesus directly scorning the questioning parties by asking them why they are trying to trap Him, but then Jesus goes on to answer their question. It seems a little odd that Jesus would scorn them for asking such a question, but then answer it anyway. Perhaps that is why Luke 20:23-24 edits out that scorn.

Finally, Mark 12:17 simply ends in their astonishment at Jesus' answer. Luke 20:26 follows suit with that, by saying their astonishment silenced them. Matthew 22:22 goes the extra mile, saying that, in defeat, they took their ball and went home. :-) Of course, these differences do not necessarily contradict each other.

{NOTE:  The coin pictured above is not a denarius.}


  1. Very insightful. I suspect the expositors may have assumed the correlation between the whole heart and the "etc." of your list but I very much like the clarity with which you have expressed it.

    I may use this too ;-)

  2. Thank you, dsholland. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes. :-)

  3. Interesting post, I like your take on this, although I am a bit confused by part of your conclusion. You said

    "Perhaps it is avoided because of the implication that the original message was just for the Jews"

    I'm guessing this comes from the fact that God was talking to the Jews when he said that the law is on their hearts. However, the Christians seems to have taken this message and run with it. They say God's law is written on everyone's hearts, even atheists. (They seem to make that argument when we point out that atheists can be moral too)

    Also, as you pointed out, the idea that we should give ourselves completely to God is right in their wheelhouse. I think the reason they don't use "Give to God what is God's" as "give yourself completely to God" is because they have never thought of it.

  4. Thanks, and sorry about that, Hausdorff. I did not mean to be cryptic with the Jewish reference.

    The original verses from Deuteronomy were addressed specifically to the Israelites (Jews), as they were the only ones receiving God's Law. So if we use these verse as the allusion of the "inscription," then that only applies to the Jews.

    On the flip side, even if this was a Jew-only reference, one could rightfully argue that it was context sensitive; that Jesus used this Jewish reference because He was speaking to Jews, and therefore it does not necessarily mean that it is exclusively meant for the Jews, but rather was used as a way of tailoring the message to the audience.

    As for the Christians taking the idea of the law on our hearts and running with it, that comes from a misuse of later prophesies where God said that the Law would be written on hearts, some of which I think we discussed on your blog. Obviously, I disagree with the scope and interpretation of the terms there. :-)