One of the most famous incidents in the life of Jesus Christ is found in the chronicle compiled by his disciple and friend Matthew.
Some Pharisees, accompanied by Herodians, conspired together--as they often did--to trap Jesus, seeking to put him by his own words in an untenable position with the people and the Roman government.
The Pharisees, it should be mentioned, were fiery nationalists who were adamantly opposed to Roman hegemony and who, though quiescent but seething under Roman rule during Jesus' day, had in past times fought wars against Hellenization and the influence of Rome. The Herodians, as their name indicates, supported the reigning house of Herod and their role in ruling for Rome.
Both parties saw Jesus as an enemy to their authority and wanted to discredit him in the eyes of the people, who were attracted to Jesus' message and healing powers, and who were sick of Herod and the Pharisees, both of whom burdened the populace with myriad rules and regulations as well as with onerous taxes.
The co-conspirators came up with a question they thought would be a perfect trap, one that would get rid of Jesus influence one way or another: "Tell us, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?"
If Jesus said, "No, don't pay your taxes," the Herodians would report him to the Roman authorites and he would be crucified for treason. If he said, "Yes, pay your taxes," the nationalist Pharisees would denounce him as a traitor to the Jewish nation.
Matthew goes on to relate, "But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, "You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax." They brought him a denarius, and he asked them,"Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?"
"Caesar's," they replied.
Then he said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's"
Matthew relates the "When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away."
The portrait on the denarius, one of the most common coins of that day, was that of the Emperor Tiberius Caesar Augustus, who like his predecessor Caesar Augustus, claimed to be a god. Tiberius' divine person represented the entirety of the Roman government. The coin and the taxes paid with it were a statement of absolute governmental authority over all of life.
As the story is often interpreted, Jesus was simply making a statement about citizens' obligation to pay taxes.
But there is a much deeper interpretation of the story, for the distinction Jesus made between what is owed the government and what is owed God strikes at the very heart of the absolutism represented by Tiberius and Rome as well as at the heart of any and every absolutist state, ancient or modern. To put it succinctly, Jesus put the Kingdom of God and the individual Christian conscience above earthly authority even as he gave earthly government legitimacy while limiting its authority.
It is difficult for us to apprehend the magnificence and profoundity of Jesus' words, but Lord Acton of Great Britain summarized the impact of Jesus' words in his great lecture The History of Freedom in Antiquity. He wrote:
"...when Christ said: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” those words, spoken on His last visit to the Temple, three days before His death, gave to the civil power, under the protection of conscience, a sacredness it had never enjoyed, and bounds it had never acknowledged; and they were the repudiation of absolutism and the inauguration of Freedom. For our Lord not only delivered the precept, but created the force to execute it. To maintain the necessary immunity in one supreme sphere, to reduce all political authority within defined limits, ceased to be an aspiration of patient reasoners, and was made the perpetual charge and care of the most energetic institution and the most universal association in the world. The new law, the new spirit, the new authority, gave to Liberty a meaning and a value it had not possessed in the philosophy or in the constitution of Greece or Rome, before the knowledge of the Truth that makes us free."
As Lord Acton noted in his essay, never before in human history were there effectual means to limit governmental authority. Never before had the bounds of government been restrained or even defined except as rulers defined the bounds.
Even today, with many of the foundations of Western civilization weakened; even with the morally odious regimes of the twentieth century still fresh in our minds, it is difficult for us in the free countries of the West to comprehend the brutality and savagery of the absolutism of ancient Roman rulers. The metallic profile of Tiberius on the coin given Jesus didn't speak aloud of the emperor's horrible cruelties and odious, corrupt perversions. He had no moral restraints, as his contemporary chroniclers Suetonius and Tacitus noted. What transpired on the island of Capri, Tiberius' pleasure ground, still has the capacity to shock even the most jaded among us. But such are the prerogatives of a ruler who knows neither the restraint of conscience or the restraint of others.
Jesus, by the example of his life and work and by his response to both political and religious absolutism, and the reign of absolute and arbitrary prerogative of ruler "gods", put in place the chief restraint on governments and their rulers: the "New Law", a spiritual verity asserting the primacy of loyalty to individual conscience molded to faith in God. In each human heart, there is an inviolate space which earthly government may not control; a pristine tract of heart on which Government dare not trample without crushing the human longing for true freedom.
For the person who answers ultimately to his conscience before God alone, there is a dividing line no government or ruler can pass. Everything within such a person shouts, "You shall not pass!"
Where that dividing line lies, and who must be resisted if it is violated, free men and free women must decide in each and every age since Christ defined that line.
For there will always be those who out of desire for power and control; out of evil antagonism toward the good and beautiful; out of rage against those who will not at a command bend the knee, will seek to trangress, and even to eradicate that thin, but strong dividing line.
Let us hope and pray there also will always be strong men and women who will rise up to hold the line.