Question: What did the Savior mean when he said, “Render unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s”?
Answer: The Savior wittingly teaches that it is possible to respect civil authority and honor God.
“There is no reason or justification for men to disregard or break the law or try to take it into their own hands. Christ gave us the great example of a law-abiding citizen when the Pharisees, trying to entangle him, as the scriptures say, asked him if it were lawful to give tribute money unto Caesar. After asking whose inscription was on the tribute money, and their acknowledgment that it was Caesar’s, he said: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matt. 22:21.)
“Now regarding the laws of God. They are as clear and as binding and as irrevocable as those of nature, and our success or failure, our happiness or unhappiness, depend on our knowledge and application of these laws in our lives. We are told:
“There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—
“And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.” (D&C 130:20–21.) (President N. Eldon Tanner, October 1975, “The Laws of God”).
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20 And they (the scribes, Pharisees and elders) watched him, and sent forth spies, which should feign (pretend) themselves just (righteous, sincere) men, that they might take hold of his words, (catch Jesus saying something for which he could be arrested) that so they might deliver him unto the power and authority of the governor (the Roman governor, Pontius PIlate).
21 And they (the spies) asked him, saying, Master, we know that thou sayest and teachest rightly, neither acceptest thou the person of any (you don’t change your teachings because of peer pressure), but teachest the way of God truly: (They are pretending to be “just men.”)
22 Is it lawful (legal) for us to give tribute (pay taxes) unto Cæsar, or no?
23 But he perceived their craftiness (Jesus understood their sly intentions), and said unto them, Why tempt ye me (why are you trying to trick me)?
24 Shew (show) me a penny (a Roman penny representing about a day’s wage). Whose image (picture) and superscription (and writing on the coin) hath it? They answered and said, Cæsar’s.
25 And he said unto them, Render (pay) therefore unto Cæsar the things which be Cæsar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s.
26 And they could not take hold of his words before the people (their plot didn’t work): and they marvelled (were stunned) at his answer, and held their peace (kept quiet).
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Elder Neal A. Maxwell:
For many years now, in literature, film, and music, we have witnessed increasing expressions of a profound sense of what has come to be called existential despair, a hopelessness beyond hope. Granted, the human scene also includes many individuals who go happily about life’s labors untouched by these feelings. But the holocausts and the wars have taken their terrible toll of hope among twentieth-century man. Said one eminent scientist, “The most poignant problem of modern life is probably man’s feeling that life has lost its significance, … [a] view … no longer limited to the philosophical or literary avant garde. It is spreading to all social and economic groups and affects all manifestations of life.” (Rene Dubos, So Human an Animal [New York: Scribners, 1968], pp. 14–15.)
One need not question either the reluctance or the sincerity with which some despairing individuals have come to such wrong conclusions. In fact, one feels compassion and desires to reach out to them in genuine entreaty! ...
Let us, therefore, place several such lamentations beside the revelations of God. The expressions of despair beside the divine annunciations of hope. The fears of extinction alongside the reassurances of the Resurrection. The provincialism beside the universalism of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Then we shall see how myopic some mortals are, like absorbed children in a tree house pretending they are brave and alone!
The lamentations: Man lives in “an unsponsored universe,” a universe “without a master,” which “cares nothing for [man’s] hopes and fears,” an “empire of chance” in which man falls victim to “the trampling march of unconscious power.” (Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” in Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays [London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1950], p. 57.)
The revelations: “God himself that formed the earth … created it not in vain, he formed it to be inhabited.” (Isa. 45:18.)
“For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” (Ps. 95:7.)
“For behold, this is my work and my glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39.)
“Men are, that they might have joy.” (2 Ne. 2:25.)
“But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.” (See Matt. 10:29–30.)
Not only are the hairs of our heads numbered, but the planets also: “But only an account of this earth, and the inhabitants thereof, give I unto you. For behold, there are many worlds that have passed away by the word of my power. And there are many that now stand, and innumerable are they unto man; but all things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them.” (Moses 1:35.)
The fears: Mankind is destined to extinction … there is nothing we can do. We have no personal life beyond the grave; there is no God. “Fate knows nor wrath nor ruth.” (James Thomson, The City of Dreadful Night and Other Poems [London: Bertram Dobell, 1899], pp. 29–30, 35–36.)
The reassurances: “And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,
“And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.” (Matt. 27:52–53; see also 3 Ne. 23:9–11.)
“O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (1 Cor. 15:55.)
“O how great the plan of our God!” (2 Ne. 9:13.)
Some despair who are, as Peter said, willingly ignorant (see 2 Pet. 3:5) or, as Nephi said, who will not search or understand great knowledge (see 2 Ne. 32:7). For these, a pessimistic philosophy is “pleasing unto the carnal mind.” (Alma 30:53.) Why? Because behavioral permissiveness flourishes amid a sense of hopelessness. Because if human appetites are mistakenly viewed as the only authentic reality and “now” as the only moment which matters, why should one checkrein any impulse or defer any gratification? Hence, immortality and accountability are intertwined!
Yes, there are some who live without hope who, though having reached such a wrong conclusion, nevertheless maintain right conduct. In such decent individuals, the light of Christ, though unacknowledged, burns still. (See D&C 84:46.) If it were not so, we would despise a Gandhi and admire a Hitler, instead of feeling just the opposite!
Such spreading pessimism does not necessarily mean “back to the catacombs” for Christians, or that secular Caesars will soon reopen the Colosseum. But, already, there are would-be Caesars who will refuse to settle for citizens who render to Caesar only that which is his, and unto God all that is His. (See Matt. 22:21.)
This sense of despair is further intensified by the demonstrated emptiness of materialism. Increased goods will not suffice if men display decreased goodness. Likewise, the mere accumulation of knowledge without purpose and of information without wisdom constitutes ever learning but never coming to a knowledge of the truth. (See 2 Tim. 3:7.) ...
The true Christian, of course, does not see life as an easy passage: “The cross comes before the crown and tomorrow is a Monday morning!” (C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory [Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965], p. 14.) With ultimate hope, however, we can live cheerfully amid proximate insecurity. Life is a test in which man must overcome by faith, walking on the strait and narrow path, which is surely no escalator, but the path is there!
And death is not the permanent annihilation of the human personality and individuality! President Brigham Young wisely declared that the preservation of human intelligence and individuality through the Atonement and resurrection “is the greatest gift that ever was bestowed on mankind.” (Journal of Discourses, 5:53.)
Just as in translating, the Prophet Joseph Smith processed truths more profound than even he then knew, we are custodians and possessors of a gospel of bright and realistic hope. It is a hope for which many hunger more deeply than we can possibly imagine. We poorly serve the cause of the Lord, at times, with programmatic superficiality and by our lack of empathy for those who drift in despair...
And, however articulate some of those despairing actors are in this human drama, without the gospel light they view only a tiny portion of one scene, not even a whole act. And certainly not the whole play. Such are invited to understand the purposes and instructions of the Author of this drama. But when He finally “comes on the stage, the play is over!” Meanwhile, we should not impute man’s failures to God! “Remember, remember that it is not the work of God that is frustrated, but the work of men.” (D&C 3:3.)
Indeed, man’s successes and failures were known from the beginning by the Lord and were taken into account by Him in the unfolding of His plan of salvation. (See 1 Ne. 9:6.) His purposes will be fully achieved.
Justice, love, mercy, and truth will finally prevail in a universe presided over by a Lord who is a determined as well as a loving Tutor. This mortal school is one of which the Father and the Son have solemnly declared, “And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them.” (Abr. 3:25.)
The Lord knows how true individual development requires a setting of agency and opportunity. There is no other way. No wonder Apostles and prophets have told us not to be moved away from the hope of the gospel, for hope is “an anchor of the soul” (Heb. 6:19) to “make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works.” (Ether 12:4; see also Col. 1:23.)
The need, therefore, is for devoted disciples to do as Paul said, to “shine as lights in the world” (Philip. 2:15), illuminating that latter-day valley foreseen by Joel: “Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision: for the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision.” (Joel 3:14; see also Rev. 16:16; Zech. 14:2.)
The very way in which these illuminated individuals “take up [the] cross daily” is a sermon in itself. (See Luke 9:23.) They lead lives not of quiet desperation but of quiet inspiration, constituting what Paul would call their “defence and confirmation of the gospel.” (Philip. 1:7.)
Theirs represents a tinier and quieter history within the larger and noisier human history, a joyful and reassuring drama within the more despairing drama being played out on this planet...
Likewise, one deeply admires those wronged who, nevertheless, go on doing that which is right, refusing to become offended or bitter. Let others charge God foolishly (see Job 1:22); these faithful souls are magnanimous and forgiving, as was a generous Joseph in Egypt to his erring brothers: “Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life.” (Gen. 45:6.) Such Saints fashion forgiveness where others would revel in resentment!...
Such individuals give to us a continuing sermon in sainthood. The gospel light has “infused such joy” into their souls, that any cloud of darkness has been dispelled. (Alma 19:6.)
“By the patience of hope and the labor of love” these are finishing the work the Lord has given them to do. (See “Come, Let Us Anew,” Hymns, no. 17.)
Let the winds and the storms beat and pound upon such faithful Saints; they will overcome the world, not vice versa. Let others falter; these will not! Let others pout and doubt; these will not! Let some noisily mock the temple; these will quietly flock to the temple, to do the work of Him whose house it is!
God bless you faithful brothers and sisters for shining “as lights in the world” (Philip. 2:15), as beacons to dispel despair. To a world spiritually illiterate, you give great lessons in the grammar of the gospel, including this one: death is a mere comma, not an exclamation point!
In the holy name of Jesus Christ, amen.
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Source: Come, Follow Me–For Individuals and Families, p. 78; The New Testament Made Easier, Part 1, Volume 2, by David J. Ridges, 235; Excerpts from May 1983, Ensign, General Conference, “Shine As Lights in the World,” by Elder Neal A. Maxwell, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.