Christians should pay their taxes, but the famous teaching of Jesus, “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), is one of the most misunderstood verses in the New Testament. Jesus was not suggesting that Christians should give their loyalty to both God and Caesar. To the contrary, Jesus was challenging His hearers to give all of their allegiance to God alone.
The first part of this two part article, “Render to Caesar?”, broke down the textual and historical context, which gives us better understanding of the taxation question as it was presented to Jesus. This second part breaks down Jesus’ response.
The Coin and Counter Question
But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, “Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites? Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax.” And they brought Him a denarius. And He said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to Him “Caesar’s.” – Matthew 22.18-21a
Jesus certainly could have chosen to answer their question without this counter-question. The coin and the counter-question served the important function, and the significance must not be ignored. Jesus used the coin and counter-question to allude to key Scriptures which taught that our allegiance belongs to God alone.
Instead of immediately answering their question, Jesus requested to see the coin that was used for the tax. The coin in question, the denarius, had an image of Caesar on it. Two words, “likeness” and “inscription”, in the counter-question point to two key commandments in the Old Testament.
God Prohibits Any Likeness (or Image)
You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God. – Exodus 20.3-5
The first two of the Ten Commandments prohibit worship of anyone or anything but God, and it also forbids making any image of a false god. God demands the exclusive allegiance of His people. Jesus’ usage of the word “likeness” in the counter-question would have reminded His listeners of this prohibition against creating images of any false gods.
Carrying around the “likeness” of Caesar was bad enough. But when we consider the “inscription” on the coin, it is even more revealing.
The Law Demands Worship of God Alone
Inscribed around the image of Caesar was the words “TI CAESAR DIVI AUG F AUGUSTUS”, which is an abbreviation for “Tiberius Caesar, Worshipful Son of the God, Augustus”. The other side of the coin had the image of the Roman goddess of peace, Pax, with the inscriptuion “Pontif Maxim”, which stands for “Pontifus Maximus”, which in turn means “High Priest.”
In one of the most ironic passages in the New Testament, the gospels depict the Son of God, the High Priest, the Prince of Peace, the King, holding in his hand a tiny silver coin of a king who claimed to be the son of god, and the high priest of Roman peace.
All Jews understood that the Law commanded Israel to worship God and God alone. Every morning Jews were known to pray the words of Deuteronomy 6.4-9,
Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
By referring to the likeness and the inscription on the coin, Jesus appealed to key commandments from Scripture, and thus demonstrated the hypocrisy of his questioners, while reminding the hearers that Scripture taught that the LORD alone is God, and Caesar is not.
Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s
Two hundred years earlier, one of the slogans of the Macabbean revolt against the Syrians had been “Pay back the Gentiles what they deserve – and obey the commands of the law.” (1 Macc. 2.68). In other words, Israel wanted to pay back the Syrians with the violence they deserved, while maintaining faithfulness to the law.
That’s what they meant. But what did Jesus mean when He said “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s”? On one hand, He could have meant, “Yes, pay the tax”, yet without the sting of “Yes, submit to your Roman masters.”
Secondly, He could have purposely mirrored the Maccabean slogan, as if to say “Give the Romans what they deserve!” (i.e. nothing), while crafting His words carefully to avoid the direct charge of inciting tax revolt. The fact that Jesus had just referred to Caesar’s blasphemous image, and the blasphemous inscription on the coin certainly support this understanding. But again, the words were spoken in such a way so as to avoid direct charge. His words are, after all, literally saying “Yes, pay the tax.”
Had He undermined Caesar’s right to collect taxes? Or had He told them to pay the tax?
I suggest that He had done neither, while at the same time He had done both. Nobody could deny that Jesus’ saying sounded an awfully lot like the revolutionary Maccabean slogan, yet nobody could say that Jesus had forbidden the payment of the tax. He was certainly not giving legitimacy to Roman authority, but neither was He advocating tax revolt. It seems most likely to me that Jesus had given a purposely ambiguous answer so that His listeners would be left to wrestle with the question, “What do I really owe Caesar?”
Render to God What is God’s
The second part of Jesus’ answer is anything but ambiguous. According to Scripture, everything belongs to God. Jesus had already reminded his listeners of the first two commandments. Scripture teaches that the LORD alone is the only true God and everything rightfully belongs to Him.
The earth is the LORD’s, and all that it contains,
The world, and those who dwell in it. – Psalm 24.1
For every beast of the forest is Mine,
The cattle on a thousand hills. – Psalm 50.10
God claimed that even the silver and the gold rightfully belonged to Him.
The silver is Mine and the gold is Mine,’ declares the LORD of hosts. – Haggai 2.8
The emperor, on the other hand, also claimed that all people and things in the empire rightfully belonged to Rome. The denarius notified everyone that those who transacted with it owed the emperor their exclusive allegiance and worship.
With one straight forward counter question, followed by the command to “render to God the things that are God’s”, Jesus skillfully pointed out that the claims of God and the claims of Caesar are mutually exclusive. If one’s faith is in God, then God is owed everything, and Caesar’s claims are illegitimate. If one’s faith is in Caesar, God’s claims are illegitimate, and Caesar is owed, at the very least, the coin which bears his image.
What Jesus certainly didn’t mean was that the lives of His disciples could divide their lives and their allegiance into two separate parts (the “religious” part and the “political” part). Every aspect of the world, and every aspect of our lives should be given to God.
The Response To Jesus’ Answer
Jesus’ reply to their question invited His listeners to choose allegiances. Not only did Jesus cleverly escape their trap; He authoritatively rebuked his opponents by basing His answer in scripture. No wonder Matthew records:
And hearing this, they were amazed, and leaving Him, they went away. – Matthew 22.22
Following the same rhetorical structure as the trap question about His authority, 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.
Had Jesus’ answer simply meant “Yes, pay the tax”, no one would have left “amazed.” They would have rejoiced, for their trap would have worked! But in the context we examined above, no Jew would have taken Jesus’ response as an endorsement of taxation. To the contrary, a few days later, Jesus was accused of forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar.
And they began to accuse Him, saying “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ, a King. – Matthew 23.2
Did Jesus actually encourage tax rebellion? No. But it should be clear that Jesus’ answer was not understood as a clear-cut approval of the taxation either. Had Jesus’s teaching been understood as an endorsement of Caesar’s tax, then this accusation would have never surfaced, for it would have been quickly refuted by those who heard Jesus’ teaching.
But if Jesus’s statement is understood as a challenge to serve God alone as King, then this accusation makes perfect sense.
What is the Christian Response To Taxation?
Since even our money ultimately belongs to God, and He alone is the rightful King, do Christians actually owe their government anything? Did Jesus teach that Christians should only spend their money as God would want them to spend it, rather than giving their money to Caesar? In other words, did Jesus actually encourage tax rebellion?
There is absolutely nothing in the New Testament that would support this conclusion. The New Testament commanded Christians of that day, and commands Christians in our day, to submit to government and to pay whatever taxes they require of us. (Rom. 13.5-7; 1 Pet. 2.13-15).
This isn’t to say that Caesar “has a right” to collect taxes, or even that we “owe” anything to government as if it belonged to them. Christians are not commanded to pay their taxes because we think government deserves it, or because we think they have a rightful claim to it. Rather we are to pay our taxes because the Creator, and only King to whom we are to pledge our allegiance, commands us to pay them.
The New Testament describes Christians as strangers and exiles in a foreign land (Heb. 11.3; 1 Pet. 2.11). To get into a political fight with our earthly rulers over the money they take from us distracts us from what we are called to do, which is to spread the Kingdom of God. Our only concern is that we are giving to God anything and everything that He is owed. This includes a willingness to submit and pay taxes to to even the most unjust of governments.
Neither Jesus nor the apostles advocated tax rebellion. Yet, at the same time, Jesus never taught that Caesar’s claim to authority was legitimate. The idea that Christians should support both God and government, by living with dual allegiances and dual citizenships, is not supportable historically, contextually, or exegetically. If we would render to God all the things that belong to God, there should be nothing left for Caesar.