Render Unto Caesar…and Then What?




There are a number of potential key points that Homer may have wanted to spotlight in his famous tragedy, “Antigone.”  Without a doubt, one of those was the tension faced by someone who believed that she had responsibilities both toward her government and the toward her gods. All was well until each of the two demanded conflicting prominence.  

In such an event, which would went out?  Should governmental laws always take precedence over religious principles? Or should religious convictions and related moral standards always take precedence over law if there is a conflict?

Supposedly in a country that prides itself or has prided itself in the separation of temple/church/mosque and state, citizens should infrequently if ever be faced with a conflict between a demand the government makes on them, and their desire to fulfill their absolute devotion to their deity or deities.  Yet, the conflict isn’t as infrequent as the founders and framers hoped and anticipated. Fairly often, there are conflicts between the demand of law and the demand of absolute morality based in whatever theocentric religion you might want to consider.

Both of Antigone’s brothers died needlessly in battle. In fact, they killed each other in the dispute over whose turn it was to sit on the throne. The king who replaced both of them was their uncle, Creon, also Antigone’s uncle. Hence, Creon, flexing his muscle as a new autocrat makes this stupid ruling that the one who most recently sat on the throne, Eteocles, even though he was supposed to have given it up to his brother, Polynices, so that Polynices could have his turn to rule, was still officially the king (though he had not lived by the shared-throne agreement). Therefore, said King Creon, Eteocles should have a fancy ceremonial state funeral while his brother’s body could not be buried and must be left out to rot in the sun.  Anyone who tried to bury the body would be executed.

Antigone said that her devotion to her gods demanded that she give every human being a decent burial. Furthermore her duty to her family demanded that for family members even if the gods had not thought to decree it. Therefore, whatever the punishment Creon might order for her she would be willing to face because the laws of the gods, Antigone said, were greater than the laws of humans.

The law of the land violated her personal morality.  She had, up to this point in her life, kept the laws of the land to a tee–rendered unto Caesar all the way.  In this instance, however, she had a crisis of conscience.  It was a life or death decision weighing on her shoulders.

     Yea, for these laws were not ordained of Zeus,
  And she who sits enthroned with gods below,
  Justice, enacted not these human laws.
  Nor did I deem that thou, a mortal man,
  Could’st by a breath annul and override
  The immutable unwritten laws of Heaven.
  They were not born today nor yesterday;
  They die not; and none knoweth whence they sprang.
  I was not like, who feared no mortal’s frown,
  To disobey these laws and so provoke
  The wrath of Heaven. I knew that I must die,
  E’en hadst thou not proclaimed it; and if death
  Is thereby hastened, I shall count it gain.
  For death is gain to him whose life, like mine,
  Is full of misery. Thus my lot appears
  Not sad, but blissful; for had I endured
  To leave my mother’s son unburied there,
  I should have grieved with reason, but not now.
  And if in this thou judgest me a fool,
  Methinks the judge of folly’s not acquit.

I’ve been thinking for several years that tax collectors as villains sort of went away after the time of Jesus and such crooks as Zacchaeus.  Zacchaeus was an IRS supervisor in the time of Jesus who ultimately repented of his extensive legally-sanctioned thievery and repaid all his victims several times over what he had originally taken from them.

Yet, tax collectors living above or around the law are still alive and well.  I was completely un-moved, as in not surprised in the least, when the news came out officially in the last several days that the IRS not only had a list of conservative religious groups who were on a list to get as much scrutiny as possible in all the ways the IRS can give scrutiny to groups, but also a similar list for progressive religious entities. My contention is, as I expressed to a staff member in Senator Coons’s office, that I believe not only organizations–conservative and progressive–are getting unwarranted attention from the IRS, but also individuals. T party types, yes. Progressive Christian types, yes.

So, Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar that which is Ceasar’s and unto God that which is God’s,” and then what?  It is important to keep in mind when we are thinking about anything monetary or of material value in Jesus’ day that most of the people who sought out his advice and who followed his counsel were poor people. And the Romans taxed them mercilessly. The Romans were as hard on the Jews in this regard as they were on other people whom they held in subjugation–and not because of religious leanings or lack of same. They were an equal opportunity police state.

“Rendering unto Caesar” in our context does not mean that people on either end of the religious-commitment continuum should pay more or be under greater scrutiny than middle-of-the-road people or organizations, religiously speaking, or people or organizations  with no religious commitments at all.  Appeals, even a democracy, are difficult, though.  Render unto Caesar and then what?

DOMA’s demonstrated purpose was to “ensure that if any State decides to recognize same-sex marriages, those unions will be treated as second-class marriages for purposes of federal law,” the Supreme Court majority ruled this week as the Defense of Marriage Act was defeated.

     This raises a most serious question under the Constitution’s       
     Fifth Amendment. DOMA humiliates tens of thousands of    
     children now being raised by same-sex couples and makes it
     even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity
     and closeness of their own family and its concord with other
     families in their community and in their daily lives.

That’s an interesting part of the argument that struck down DOMA a few days ago.  

A same-gender couple wanting to be united in a formalized love relationship is hardly a new thing, and it’s certainly time we caught up.  The first known reference to the performance of same-sex marriages occurred during the early Roman Empire–a beginning date for that era being fifteen or so years before the birth of Jesus. Two Roman emperors, at least two, were in same-gender unions; emperors, of course, could do whatever they wanted.  Thirteen of the first fourteen Roman Emperors claimed to be bisexual or homosexual.

The first Roman emperor to marry a man was Nero, who appears to have married two men along the way.  First, one of his freed slaves, Pythagoras, to whom Nero took the role of the bride in the ceremony.  Second, Nero married a teenager named Sporus.  In that ceremony, FYI, Emperor Nero was the groom.  Their wedding ceremony was very public and very elaborate.  

An emperor by the name of Elagabalus referred to his chariot driver, Hierocles, as his husband.  Elagabalus also married an athlete, Zoticus, in a posh public ceremony in Rome as his subjects celebrated wildly.

Same-gender marriage was not outlawed until 342 CE by Christian emperors even though we have not a word, not a hint, of condemnation of same gender love in anything that has been attributed to Jesus.  A violation resulted in what the written law referred to as “exquisite punishment,” which typically, from what can be pieced together, meant execution of the same-gender couple trying to make a relationship for themselves.

A same-sex marriage between the two men, Pedro Díaz and Muño Vandilaz in Rairiz de Veiga in Spain was solemnized on April 16, 1061. They were married by a priest in good standing with the Church in a small Roman Catholic chapel. The historic, proof of marriage documents were found by archaeologists at the Monastery of San Salvador de Celanova.

In late Middle Ages in France, it seems to have been legal for a same-gender couple to enter in a legal contract of betrothal, a  civil union between adult males who pledged to live together sharing  “one bread, one wine, and one purse.” This legal category may represent one of the earliest forms of sanctioned same-gender unions.

Same-gender couples in our country waited a long, long time for this breakthrough, and the High Court’s vote was not a shoe-in ruling;it was one of those nail-biting 5 to 4 votes.  The best same-gender couples have been able to do in many states was a private affirmation, which is nothing to sneeze at when it comes to commitment, but same-gender couples were typically denied spousal rights not the least of which I’ve observed is denial to visit as family when one of the two is hospitalized.  Can Caesar tell us whom we can love?  Really?

The Mennonites have never become Caesar renderers any more than absolutely necessary.  Formally, they say.


As Christians we are to respect those in authority and to pray for all people, including those in government, that they also may…come to the knowledge of the truth.  We may participate in government or other institutions of society only in ways that do not violate the love and holiness taught by Jesus and do not compromise our loyalty to the teachings of Jesus. We witness to the nations by being that “city on a hill” demonstrating the way of Jesus.  We also witness by being ambassadors for God, calling the nations (and all persons and institutions) to move toward justice, peace, and compassion for all people. In so doing, we seek the welfare of “the city” to which God has sent us.


Howard Zinn wrote:


If patriotism were defined, not as blind obedience to government, not as submissive worship to flags and anthems, but rather as love of one’s country, one’s fellow citizens (all over the world), as loyalty to the principles of justice and democracy, then patriotism would require us to disobey our government, when it violated those principles.


In the end, Jesus could not render under Caesar all the way because he would not give control of his conscience to anyone.



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