In Matthew 22:21, Jesus used a coin, minted with the face of Caesar, as a prop to his famous admonition to “render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God”. The common treatment of this Gospel passage, by Christian and non-Christian alike, is one of a division of labour. All humanity, and Christians in particular, are bound by their creator to show due submission to the secular sovereign over things that “belong to Caesar”, namely in matters that are deemed to be “political”. The passage thus serves as a prooftext for those who claim that God himself requires us to be loyal subjects to the secular sovereign.
Several difficulties arise in this reading of the passage. The first is that no authoritative schema seems to be provided, whether in the Scriptures or in other extra-biblical sources, on what exactly belongs to Caesar. In the absence of such a schema, many seem willing to let the sovereign decide for the Christian what he or she should render unto Caesar. The second difficulty of this reading can be gleaned from an Augustinian reading of the passage, particularly when this passage is refracted through the lens of his City of God. While there are things that may belong to Caesar, Caesar is part of the City of Man, which is marked by the lust for domination. Marked by the love of self as the ultimate good Caesar, like all fallen creatures, will claim that everything belongs to Caesar. This reading is backed up in part by recent readings of critical theorists, particularly Michael Hardt, who claim that all social things are increasingly assuming a stateward orientation, in that more and more things previously free from state purview are suddenly becoming so as a matter of “public interest”, that is, a matter that belongs to Caesar.
It seems that the ancient Church perceived these tendencies towards self-aggrandisement in Caesar, and did not see it fit to merely defer to Caesar in “political” matters. While it was true that certain things belonged to Caesar, the ancient Church also made the counterpoint which echoed Deuteronomy 10:14 and Psalm 24: To the Lord belongs the earth and everything that lives in it (this is given a sharper edge in relation to Caesar by the fourth-century Father, Ambrose of Milan).
Set against this backdrop, Matthew 22:21 was interpreted not in terms of a division of labour, but a division of loyalty, between God on the one hand and Caesar on the other. Interestingly, this division is pointed with reference to coins by the first-century Church Father, Ignatius of Antioch. While the Gospel passage explicitly made a mention of a coin that belonged to Caesar, Ignatius seemed to imply the existence of another set of coins, only one of which the Christian could swear loyalty to. In the beginning of his Letter to the Magnesians (which appeared in the Sunday Office of Readings in 22 July 2012), Ignatius wrote
Just as there are two coinages, one of God and the other of the world, each with its own image, so unbelievers bear the image of this world, and those who have faith with love bear the image of God the Father through Jesus Christ. Unless we are ready through his power to die in the likeness of his passion, his life is not in us.
A couple of themes seem to emerge from this rich passage that require further consideration. The first is that this seems to act as a corrective to those who see a comfortable division of labour between God and Caesar. The second theme this passage raises is an interesting linkage between currency and loyalties and its implications for the Christians loyalty to God (Jesus did say that the Christian cannot serve both God and money), a theme indicated somewhat earlier in an interview with Philip Goodchild. While the debates on what may or may belong to Caesar will continue on this side of the eschaton, the witness of the ancient Church on this score is an important one that cannot be ignored.