Rendering Unto Cæsar

(cf. Matt. 22:21)

Almost every educated person in the Western world understands that "rendering unto Cæsar" means performing one's obligations to the government of the country of which one is a citizen. One "renders unto Cæsar" when one pays one's income taxes, as Americans do on April 15 each year. One "renders unto Cæsar" when one serves in the armed forces of the country.

In the past, whether an Orthodox Christian found himself under a Roman Cæsar, a Russian Tsar, or a Turkish Sultan, he always recognized the obligation to "render" unto whatever Cæsar God's Providence had placed over him. This obligation was confirmed by our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. And it applies equally to us today.

An anomaly occurs in more modern times, however, when most Orthodox Christians now live in countries more or less democratic, where the people of the nation are the nominal rulers of the government through their elected representatives. Whether this fact posits an obligation for citizens to take a more serious, active role in government, for example, at least by voting and doing so responsibly, appears to be an undecided question. (It seems some would urge non-participation in such secular affairs.)

In this final year of the twentieth century, the people of the United States are preparing to elect a new president. The political campaign for this election is taking place during the longest period of material prosperity in American history. For that reason, this may not be the most favorable time for a sober, critical decision about the future. However, that fact alone may make it all the more important for Orthodox Christians to vote, and to vote with the greatest of care.

Not surprisingly, the outgoing American administration takes credit for the enhanced level of employment of the people, and exults in the apparent widespread popular satisfaction with the current "good times." The administration believes its policies have promoted and secured these prosperous times. Many hope to ensure that the good times continue by renewing that party's lease on the White House.

Despite the general optimism about the future of the country, however, some recognize that in the end "the piper must be paid," that bad times surely lie ahead. Furthermore, they harbor a disturbed awareness of widespread corruption both in government and in society. They believe that the outgoing administration has done much to further, and little to impede, this corruption, and that corruption augurs an eventual breakdown.

A commentator recently remarked that in his opinion our society is in "free fall," and that it is as corrupt as Roman society just before the fall of Rome.

Many recognize that the present state of corruption began when faith in God began to decline and when flagrant disregard of God's commandments became acceptable as society set about creating a "paradise on earth." The political parties vying for the presidency have widely different understandings of causes and effects in society. They propose differing agendas for solving the worst social and fiscal problems. Many intelligent people recognize that social problems — unrestricted abortion, random vicious criminal behavior by persons young and old, drug trafficking, drug abuse, political corruption, homosexuality, radical feminism, sexual addiction, and interracial antagonism, to name but a few — are very serious, and perhaps in the long run catastrophic, for the nation. Democracy not balanced by universal individual self-discipline could break down quickly as a political force.

Our country may well be at a crossroads at this time in its history. Some wish to maintain the headlong rush into the complex and uncertain future of secularized humanism. Others wish to return to a sober, simpler "God-fearing" America in which traditional American values are widely honored. There is little consensus on what form either of these ends should take. The year 2000 may come to resemble the decades before and after the birth of Christ, a time of universal peace, when the Roman state made choices which set it on a new course while retaining its historical values.

Is America possibly the modern "Roman Empire," in a time of universal peace, seriously threatened by irreconcilable internal differences and racial and class animosities? Many crave a return to a sober, simpler past. We can't know now what choices will be made, and whether they will tend to entrench moral disorder, or create a better moral order. However, a consideration of events occurring just before and after Christ was born may be instructive. We firmly believe that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.

WHEN OUR LORD, God, and Savior Jesus Christ uttered the words of the title above, He appeared to be referring to the coin on which Cæsar's image and inscription appeared.

This Roman coin bearing the image and inscription of Cæsar was used in paying taxes to the Roman state. But is there anything else that bears Cæsar's stamp? Is there anything else that might be considered among "the things that are Cæsar's," and therefore might require a "rendering unto" him?

Like every man, Cæsar is entitled to his good name. It would seem only fair that he be recognized for that which he did well and nobly for mankind. If we look simply into the New Testament we are drawn to a few citations which can point us in that direction.

One of the things which Augustus Cæsar accomplished for the good of the world is reflected in the following prayer from the Vespers of the Nativity According to the Flesh of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ:

When Emperor Augustus reigned alone upon earth, the many kingdoms of men came to an end: and when Thou, O Christ, wast made man of the pure Virgin, the many gods of idolatry were destroyed. The cities of the world passed under one single rule; and the nations came to believe in one single Godhead. The people were enrolled by the decree of Cæsar; and we, the faithful, were enrolled in the Name of the Godhead, when Thou, our God, was made man. Great is Thy mercy, glory be to Thee.

The Gospel according to St. Luke 2:1 reports that "there went out a decree from Cæsar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. . . . And Joseph went up from Galilee . . . into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem. . . to be taxed with Mary, his espoused wife, being great with Child."

This man, who is known to history as Augustus Cæsar, was born with the simple name Gaius Octavius on September 23, 63 B.C. At age 18 he was adopted as son and heir by his great-uncle Julius Cæsar. After surviving numerous dangers in his early twenties, Octavian became the first Roman emperor. He chose to be called Imperator Cæsar Divi filius (Emperor, son of the deified Cæsar). Augustus would not permit the Senate to declare him a god while he was alive (Tertullian, Apologia, XXXIV). However, in 27 B.C., in lieu of divinity, the Senate conferred on him the epithet Augustus.

But let us not be "turned off" by this pagan fact. Instead, let us examine the name to try to see it in its ancient Roman context. Pagan Romans would have perceived the name as auspicious [something seen as by an augur (seer). "Auspicious" and "augur," incidentally, are cognate with the name Augustus.] Originally Augustus was an adjective applied only to the gods. Upon his death, the Senate enrolled him among the gods of the Roman pantheon.

In addition to these cognates, the name Augustus has an interesting etymology. It is a derivative of the Latin verb augere, which means "to make larger, to strengthen, to enrich." In turn augere generated a number of other words in both Latin and English borrowings from the Latin. Emperor Augustus may have viewed this epithet, for example, as an augury [omen] of his capacity to promote the welfare and safety of the Roman people and all subject races. In any event, it became his goal, not to advance his own interests, as so many political leaders of every age are wont to do, but to dedicate himself totally to the task of serving the interests of the Roman Empire. Certainly other Romans must also have viewed the name as "auspicious" [forecasting an omen]. Furthermore, as emperor, Augustus was granted the highest auctoritas [authority] in the Roman Empire, "authority" being another term related to augere.

Augustus was fortunate to possess character strengths and good judgment, unlike so many other aspiring leaders who were ruined by their character flaws and judgmental errors. In Augustus's service to the Roman state, there came together exceptionally favorable historical circumstances, his own outstanding personal qualities, and his surprisingly considerate and charismatic personality.

These circumstances and qualities launched this adopted son and heir of Julius Cæsar into a life which has caused him to be recognized ever since as one of the greatest administrative geniuses who has ever lived.

As a young man Octavian (later Augustus) survived the terror and confusion of the great civil wars which raged throughout the Roman world during the first century B.C. We understand, of course, that he had to "kill or be killed" in that troubled age. Therefore, he must have perpetrated many cruel deeds. In the power struggle which followed Julius Cæsar's assassination, Octavian became one of the triumvirate [three coequal rulers] who ruled the reconstructed Roman state: Octavian, Lapidus, and Mark Antony. When Cæsar's assassins, Brutus and Cassius, had been defeated, Octavian and Mark Antony divided the empire between themselves, the west going to Octavian, and the east to Mark Antony. Subsequently Octavian defeated his various rivals for the supreme authority: Lapidus in 32 B.C., Antony, and the Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra, in 31 B.C. Thereupon he became the sole ruler of the entire Greco-Roman world, as is noted in the Vespers hymn cited above.

The first great task incumbent on Augustus as Emperor was to reform attitudes toward the historic Roman constitution. Over many centuries Rome had achieved unprecedented superiority over the entire Mediterranean world as a result of the excellence and effectiveness of its constitution. The general popular attitude toward Rome's constitution toward the end of the first century B.C. was something like the old American maxim: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

However, both military despotism and internecine strife had weakened the traditional balance of forces within Roman society. Julius Cæsar, in his desire to restore the old Roman values, and perhaps even to bring back a refurbished Roman Republic, had unwisely manipulated the existing system with all its faults. He did not appreciate the real value and pertinence of the inherited structures. He failed to honor the desire of the citizen body to retain their traditional privileged positions. His biggest mistake, it would seem, was in devaluing and ignoring the traditional status of the two leading classes of Roman citizens, the senators and the knights, without whose support no leader could succeed in governing.

Following Cæsar's early untimely death, the Roman Senate was unsuccessful in restoring the old order and in reasserting its traditional authority because it could not rely on consistent support from the military forces. Other new forces in society were also centrifugal to the old order. The old order definitely appeared to be "broke," but Julius Cæsar and others had been unable to "fix" it because they lacked wisdom and skill, and chose to engage in savagery to destroy their opponents and force their will on an unwilling society.

According to Augustus's own words, revealed by the Emperor Tiberius in a work published after Augustus's death, Augustus had wished to be known as the restorer of the ancient constitution. The only title he wished was princeps (first citizen), and the title principate for his government. Essentially, it seems, Augustus was a republican by conviction. The Roman historian Tacitus and historians ever since have found Augustus's presumed position unsatisfactory, perhaps because he had been too successful as a monarch.

It is interesting to learn, however, that when Augustus had defeated Antony and stood at the apex of Rome's military power, he amazingly not only laid down all the extraordinary powers he had acquired during the civil wars, but also abdicated his command over the army. This could easily have put him in personal jeopardy at the hands of any rising new antagonist who might have appeared. It turned out, however, that the Senate rejected his abdication and immediately turned the military command back over to him. Undoubtedly, many Romans recognized that Augustus as a ruler was not a typical Roman powermonger and respected him for that.

The Romans could be satisfied that Augustus had restored the republic in 27 B.C. when he "transferred the State to the free disposal of the Senate and people." Only later would it be perceived that Rome was not really a restored republic, but an autocracy. Augustus was a genius in disguising his autocratic measures beneath provisions that were recognized as republican traditions. Objectively speaking, changes had actually been very necessary to accommodate the more complex realities of the new age. Otherwise the Roman state would have destroyed itself through internal dissension and weakness before the barbarians which surrounded her. Augustus was able to implement these changes without threatening the foundations of society. He kept the Senate and the people happy, even while their status and functions evolved to a new level.

As "first citizen," Augustus had become fabulously wealthy — precisely how is not known — but at the same time he was also fabulously philanthropic.

Gradually he reformed the administrative and fiscal structure of Rome, all of Italy, and the entire empire, making it more responsive to the needs of the people and the state. The reformed financial system that made this possible was more sophisticated than anything the empire had known before. It was based on a central treasury which interacted somehow with the provincial treasuries and the treasury of the provincia of Augustus himself. More than once Augustus gave tremendous sums of money to the treasury, thereby making himself indispensable to the state. He personally paid for new buildings for Rome, for grain for distribution to the citizens, and pensions for his veterans. He paid for the celebration of spectacular games for the populace, and relieved the Senate of financial responsibility for the imperial provinces.

At the end of his rule, Augustus was not just emperor, but really the effective manager of the entire Roman system and the careful steward of the empire's properties. Had he not been so generous, bankruptcy would often have been inevitable, or a resort to the confiscatory measures of republican days which were very distasteful to the people. In short, Augustus kept the entire empire afloat, as few if any politicians then or now would be able or willing to do.

The military, finance, and the general satisfaction with the new order were the three supports on which Augustus's power rested. His power restrained the arbitrary behavior of the tax-farmers, the publicans so despised by the Jews, and regularized the collection of direct taxes. The provinces in particular were better satisfied than ever before, and in some places as early as 29 B.C. they began paying him divine honors.

The Senate remained Augustus's most likely opponent if opposition were to have developed. But while Augustus showed the Senators great respect and readily discussed all government business with them and obtained their input, all decisions rested ultimately with him. Through all the changes that were going on, he left their social privileges intact, which enabled them to "grin and bear" their total dependency on him.

This, in brief, is the man Augustus Cæsar who for forty years ruled the western world in peace, the so-called Pax Romana into which Christ our Lord, God, and Savior was born.

Augustus died in 14 A.D. and was succeeded by his adopted son, Tiberius.

One hears speculation today about "voting blocs": a tendency for individuals of a given race, religion, or political persuasion to vote in a predetermined and predictable manner in almost every election. People vote in blocs to protect their interests and to register objection to measures of which they disapprove. Thus there is said to be a Christian Right bloc. Roman Catholics and Jews have sometimes been said to vote as blocs, often in favor of candidates who favor labor or democrats. To the best of our knowledge, no one has yet referred to an Orthodox Christian voting bloc. No one will be too surprised, however, if Serbian-Americans vote as a bloc against the Democratic nominee this fall because of last summer's US-NATO attacks on Serbia.

Father John Bockman

The Holy Fathers Speak

St. Symeon the New Theologian: What Is "the World"?

This we understand from Scripture and Tradition: A true withdrawal from the world and the things that are in the world consists in this, that when we have fled the world we hate and abhor what pertains to it. However we must discern, that is, come to understand with keen and accurate discrimination, what the terms "the world" and "what pertains to it" mean.

What is the world? And what are the things that are in the world?

Listen carefully! "The world" is not gold, silver, trucks, automobiles, household appliances and the like. These things that serve our legitimate needs belong to us, and we own them lawfully. They are not "the world" we are speaking of here. Nor is "the world" meat, nor bread, nor wine, nor anything else we eat and drink in moderation for health and sustenance. Neither is "the world" our homes and the legitimate occupations we pursue, nor the fields or vineyards we may own and cultivate, nor suburban properties we may possess, for even great and small monasteries have always consisted of such as these.

So what, then, is "the world"? It is sin, plain and simple, brothers and sisters in Christ. "The world" is nothing more than our attachment to things and to the passions that possess us. "The world" and the Kingdom of Heaven, where they are found, are each found to be within us.

Let St. John the Theologian speak of "the things that are in the world": "Do not love the world or the things in the world," he says, "for all that is in the world — the lust of the flesh and the pride of life — is not of the Father, but is of the world" (1 John 2:15f.). St. John here equates "the world" with man's "lust of flesh and pride of life" which contaminate and destroy the creation that came pure from the Hand of God.

Whatever place we leave and whatever place we arrive at, we shall find the same neutral things. Whatever the place, people cannot live alone and without things which God has provided. Everywhere we make use of things that we need for sustaining our bodies and souls and those of our dependents. Everywhere there are parents and women and children — families that require our continuous love and support — and wine, and every kind of fruit; our physical sustenance consists in these and similar things.

But if we be dominated by "the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes" and the pride of our thoughts, how shall we be able in the midst of these good and inescapable things to escape from any kind of sin, without in any way being harmed by its sting? I know well that many of the saints of old guarded themselves from submission to the world, and those of the present still do so. They spend their lives in the midst of the things of this life, its concerns and its cares, and yet complete their lives in perfect holiness, detached from all things.

Of them and their like St. Paul bears witness when he says, "The form of this world is passing away, so that those who have wives should be as though they had none, and those who buy should be as though they had need of no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it" (1 Cor. 7:29 ff.). From these examples we may learn how to live with things and not be corrupted by them.

Thus he who is given to anger should refrain from giving way to it. He who pleads in his defense should not add any qualification in his heart to what he speaks. He who seeks justice for himself should be dead to the world in the disposition of his heart. He who has once attained to that state should eagerly seek and desire not even to spare his body. Those who contend in the spiritual contest have attained this state, and in every generation will continue to do so.

Revised and expanded in more contemporary English from
Symeon the New Theologian: The Discourses, 17.

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