Sunday, October 24, 2010

New Testament: Crossroads of Government and Religion

In the Gospel according to Matthew it is revealed that Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, is descended from King David.  This invokes the concept of the hereditary monarchy for Jesus, who is known as "King of the Jews".  Of course there is a clear and important break from this genealogy -  Jesus is not the biological son of Joseph.  Therefore it would appear there is a separation of the worldly, temporal kings from the heavenly kingdom of God. The line of Jewish kings has ended and this is a new age.  Naturally, others might also interpret this as a new line of kings, sanctioned by God.  Many Christian kings in the next two millenniums would assume the latter, but I believe the Bible is telling us that God is separating political power from religious authority. 

To the Israelites, there appears to be no difference between church and state.  Religious rules were political laws and limitations on cultural freedoms.  This principle is still true today in several Islamic countries and many of the laws in our country are descended from religious codes of conduct. Jesus, however, felt there needed  to be a clear distinction between church and state. Critical questioners of Jesus hoped to trick him into paying a census tax to the Romans, which they believed would make Jesus look weak, inconsistent, and submissive to the Roman occupation of Israel.  Jesus said he would pay the tax stating,

"Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s"

In other words, give the state what the state needs, but give God what God needs.  This idea was completely foreign to the Jews (see the books of Samuel and Kings) and creates a powerful precedent as it sets a division between political and religious requirements.  Do what the state wants, but also do what God wants.  It does provoke the question of where our allegiances lie. Can we obey both religious and state laws?  When and how do we acknowledge these rules?  What affect does our conscious play on following either direction?

Much of the Acts of the Apostles covers the journeys of Saul (Paul), the tax collector turned preacher, who travels throughout the Mediterranean sharing the Gospel with Jews and Gentiles. At several points the Jewish religious leaders try to stop his preaching, arrest him, and put him to death.

Paul giving the Gospel to Jews and Gentiles
Eventually Paul is detained and is nearly killed.  However, Paul declares to the authorities that he is a Roman Citizen.  This fact supersedes the religious laws of the land.
"This man was seized by the Jews and they were about to kill him, but I came with my troops and rescued him, for I had learned that he is a Roman citizen."
"Festus said: 'King Agrippa, and all who are present with us, you see this man! The whole Jewish community has petitioned me about him in Jerusalem and here in Caesarea, shouting that he ought not to live any longer. I found he had done nothing deserving of death, but because he made his appeal to the Emperor I decided to send him to Rome.'"
Paul seeking protection with the Romans
Paul is taken into protective custody and travels to Rome where he continues his preaching.
Paul says, "I had to pay a big price for my citizenship" and he uses this privilege to avoid punishment by the Jewish religious leaders.  The Romans were more interested in following the law than the religious tenets of the Jews.
The protection of a religious minority (the Christain, Paul) by the Romans could be thought of as a primodial form of religious tolerance or freedom of religion, clearly one of the tenets of our own government.  Its inclusion in the Bible suggests that seperation of church and state is not only a good idea, but it can also save your life.

It does however resurface the issue raised in Matthew of what obligations we have toward our religion and toward our government.  Is Paul following his faith by seeking succor with the Roman political system?  At what point will his allegiances shift or is he maintaining a consistent course?  Is Paul  manipulating the political system  to support his own agendas or religious belief?   


  1. What an original take on a well known book. Thanks for sharing it.

    I had a Marxist friend once who always said 'Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's' should be translated as 'Give the Romans what is coming to them.'

    So there are plenty of ways of reading it!

  2. Thanks for the comments. I've read a lot of ways of interpreting it myself which I suppose keeps a little spice in a very old book.