In Jesus’s famous teaching, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt. 22.15-22; Mk. 12.13-17; Lk. 20.20-26), Jesus challenged his hearers to give God everything He is rightfully due, giving all of their allegiance to God and not to Caesar. Unfortunately, this passage has become one of the most misunderstood and misapplied teachings of Jesus.
The passage is frequently used to prove that Jesus endorsed Caesar’s authority to collect taxes as legitimate. According to this popular view, Jesus taught His disciples to pay taxes because the Christian responsibilities to God and to Caesar fall into two separate categories, each with a legitimate but separate claim to authority. Therefore, Christians should strive to give their support to both God and Caesar, while wisely distinguishing what is due to each. If it is determined that that something is owed to the government (whether it be to be good citizens, or to vote, or to serve in office, or even fight for their nation), Christians should support their government in giving what is owed.
If we read the discussion about Caesar and taxes in isolation from the surrounding context, it is easy to see why this view is so popular. After all, Jesus did say “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” However, there are difficulties with this popular understanding.
This teaching was never intended as an endorsement of Caesar’s authority to collect taxes. Rather, in His response to a question about taxes, Jesus was purposely ambiguous in His answer. This purposeful ambiguity was designed to leave His audience asking themselves “What really belongs to God, and what really belongs to Caesar?” Rather than teaching His disciples to give their support to both God and Caesar, Jesus’s response was designed to reveal the hypocrisy of the questioners who had tried to divide their allegiance to God.
To make the case that this is a more faithful understanding of the text, this two part article will first examine the historical and textual context of the question that was asked to Jesus. Part two will examine the importance of the coin and Jesus’ counter-question, examine what it means to “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s”, and what it means to “Render to God what is God’s”, and will examine the response to Jesus’ statement. Finally, to prevent any misapplication of the text, the article will briefly consider the proper Christian response to taxes.
The Textual Context
The taxation discussion must not be read as an isolated discussion on the separation of church and state (a concept that would have been most foreign to first century Judaism). All three synoptic gospels place the conversation in the final week of Jesus’ ministry, a week that would climax with Jesus being crucified with “The King of the Jews” written above His head. The trap question comes on the heels of Messianic symbolism (The entry into Jerusalem and cleansing of the temple); references to Messianic prophecies (2 Sam. 7, Zech. 4, 6, 14); Messianic parables, and a quotation from a Messianic psalm. Jesus was, again and again, implicitly claiming that He was the Messianic King. The question of taxation is a question about the implications of Jesus’ claims to Kingship. If Jesus is going to be King, what does this mean about Caesar’s similar claim?
Among all the Messianic symbolism and teachings, Jesus was asked a trap question (Mt. 21.23-27; Mk. 11.27-33; Lk. 20.1-18).
By what authority are You doing these things, and who gave You this authority? -Matthew 21.23b
By what authority was Jesus referencing to Himself as the Messiah? If Jesus claimed that His authority came from God, He would have surely been arrested by Herod, the “other” king of the Jews. If Jesus denied that His authority came from God, He would have undermined His whole work.
Yet Jesus answered with a brilliant counter question about John the Baptist. Was His authority from God or men? Now the tables were turned. If the chief priests and scribes answered that John’s authority was from men, they would have alienated themselves from the crowds. Yet if they answered that John’s authority was from God, this would only give validity to the claim that Jesus, the successor of John the Baptist, likewise had His authority from God. Any doubts about the meaning of Jesus’ counter-question can be removed by reading the parable that follows.
Before continuing to examine the textual context, notice carefully the rhetorical structure of this trap question. 1) Jesus was asked a trap question. 2) Jesus replied with a brilliantly crafted answer. 3) Jesus left the questioners with a question of their own to ponder. 4) As a result, Jesus effectively made His claim to Messiahship while at the same time avoiding their trap. We will see this exact same structure in the trap question about taxation.
Jesus then tells a Messianic parable about a rejected son, followed by a quotation from a Messianic Psalm about a rejected cornerstone (Ps. 118.22-23). In Matthew’s account, Jesus then told a parable of a great supper (Mt. 22.1-14), in which the king had made a supper for his son, but those who refused the invitation would be thrown into outer darkness. This too was a way for Jesus to refer to Himself as the rejected son of the King.
Given Jesus’ many subtle claims to kingship, an obvious question to ask would be “If Jesus is King, what does that mean about others who make the same claim? How does Jesus’ claim to kingship relate to Caesar’s claim to kingship?” To best understand the taxation discussion, we must remove modern philosophies of the separation of church and state from our minds and place ourselves back within the Biblical text by considering the question from the perspective of Jesus’ questioners. By reading the taxation question in this light we can better understand Jesus’s response.
The Historical Context
The conversation about taxation occurred at a time when Jerusalem was boiling over with political and religious fervor for revolt and revolution. In 6 A.D. the Roman occupiers of Palestine imposed a census tax on the Jewish people. The tax was not well received, not only because of the cost, but because of what the tax represented. By 17 A.D. Judas the Galilean lead a tax revolt by teaching that “taxation was no better than slavery”, and he and his followers had “an inviolable attachment to liberty”, recognizing that God alone was the rightful king and ruler of Israel.
In this context of tax-revolt, the question of paying taxes must be seen as more than just a philosophical question of the separation between church and state. This was both a deeply political question, as well as a deeply religious question. Either, God and His divine laws were supreme, or the Roman emperor and his pagan laws were supreme.
All three synoptic gospels record that this conversation occurred during the Passover week, a week in which Israel remembered the Exodus, in which God had given them their freedom. Yet ever since the Babylonian invasion hundreds of years earlier, Israel had been ruled by others. In 163 B.C., Judas Maccabeus cleansed the temple and lead a successful revolt against their pagan oppressors. As a result, Israel enjoyed a short period of semi-independence, but ever since 63 B.C., Israel had been ruled by their Roman overlords. As the Jews looked back to the Passover to celebrate their freedom, they also agonized over the fact that they weren’t free, and they longed for the day when God’s kingdom would be exalted over the pagans once again.
For most Jews at this time, conversations about the establishment of the Kingdom of God, a new temple, the Messiah, taxation and revolt against the Roman Empire all went together. Here was another temple-cleanser, another Galilean preaching about the establishment of a new kingdom, claiming to be the new king. What would this so-called Messiah have to say about taxation?
“Then the Pharisees went and plotted together how they might trap Him in what He said. And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any. Tell us then, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not? – Matthew 22.15-17
It is important to note that this question was presented as a “trap” question. That is, the Pharisees had designed the question to box Him in. If Jesus says that it is lawful to pay the tax, He would have been seen as a collaborator with the Roman occupiers. In the minds of the Jews at the time, the Messiah was to defeat the pagans. No Roman collaborator could possibly be the Messiah. Therefore, if Jesus had answered “Yes, pay the tax”, all of symbolism and teaching of the previous week would have been seriously undermined.
If Jesus said that the tax was illegitimate, the Herodians would have surely branded him as a political criminal, and He would have almost immediately incurred the wrath of Rome. With either answer, Jesus would have been stopped.
When Jesus answered “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s”, this could not have been understood as saying “yes, pay the tax.” That was one of the two answers the Pharisees were hoping for. Again, if Jesus’ hearers understood “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s” as “Yes, pay the tax”, Jesus would have been immediately discredited as the Messiah.
So “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s” could not have possibly meant “Yes, pay the tax.” Or, perhaps, could it have meant exactly that, yet while somehow avoiding the sting of “Yes, submit to your Roman overlords”? Or did Jesus mean something different entirely? Please consider Jesus’ response carefully while reading Part 2 here.