“Render Unto Caesar that which Is Caesar’s” …. Means Caesar Will Soon Be Bankrupt!
by Jim Quinn, The Burning Platform
The event below, one of the very best known Jesus stories, appears in all three Synoptic Gospels. I would guess that 98% of Christianity interprets the story thusly; Christians, as well as all people, should pay their taxes to the government. I believe this is an incorrect application of the story. I believe the opposite is true; that Jesus in a round-about way instructed his followers to NOT pay taxes to Rome.
Let’s look at the full text from Matthew 22: 15-22 (New King James Version)
“Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk. And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher [Rabbi], we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men. Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, “Why do you test Me, you hypocrites? Show Me the tax money.” So they brought Him a denarius. And He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” And He said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left Him and went their way.”
The Pharisees: The Pharisees wanted to do more than just “entangle” Jesus. They wanted to see him killed for his response. But, they were cowards and didn’t go. Perhaps they were afraid of yet again being called hypocritical vipers and filthy rotten corpses. So, they sent “their disciples” and the Herodians. The Pharisees despised Rome, but would cooperate with them whenever it suited their devious purposes.
The Herodians: The Herodians held political power and they supported the Herods, and therefore, indirectly, Rome. To the Pharisees, this compromised the idea of Jewish independence. So, the two groups hated each other. The Gospels state that even Jesus avoided when possible the territory of Herod’s rule. But, the two groups were united in their hatred of Jesus. The Romans wouldn’t believe the Pharisee accusation of Jesus, because the Romans knew the Pharisees hated them. They needed pro-Roman witnesses to testify that Jesus was an insurrectionist. The Herodians were more than happy to go along.
Tiberius: Emperor Tiberius was reigning at the time of Christ. He was a pedophile, a sexual deviant, a murderer, and enslaved millions of people. Worse, especially to the Jews, was that he claimed to be a god. His portrait was on the coin.
The Tax: The Romans weren’t totally bad guys! They built roads, aqueducts, other public works, seaports, cities, and their soldiers/police kept the peace (for the most part). All this cost money. They imposed a series of taxes; property taxes, business taxes, income taxes, census or poll taxes. It was a heavy burden on the people which did, in some cases, leave the person destitute. There were violent tax rebellions both before and after Jesus’ arrival. Josephus recorded that it was the Jewish attitude toward the taxation problem that started the revolution of 66AD … which ended with the total destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
THE coin: The coin was a denarius – roughly a day’s wages for a common laborer. The specific coin would have been issued by the Emperor Tiberius, stamped from his personal mint, and containing silver, instead of copper coins issued by the Senate. It was used to pay soldiers, officials, and suppliers … and was the coin conquered people were required to pay the tribute. The front of the coin depicts Tiberius crowned with the laurels of victory and divinity. Circumscribed around Tiberius is an abbreviation, “TI CAESAR DIVI AUG F AUGUSTUS,” which translates to, “Tiberius Caesar, Worshipful Son of the God, Augustus.” On the other side sits the Roman goddess of peace, Pax, and circumscribed around her is the abbreviation, “Pontif Maxim” which means, “High Priest. It was a terrifically wonderful propaganda tool for the Empire, a constant and painful reminder to subjugated peoples as to who is The Big Boss.
This coin was anathema to Jewish sensibilities as the very first commandment forbids the worship of anyone or anything but God … which included the crafting of any image of a false god, such as that on the coin. It is difficult to image that Jesus, a most devout Jew, would approve of His followers paying tribute with such a coin. The extreme irony of the situation shouldn’t go unnoticed; Jesus, the Son of God, the High Priest of Peace, the King of Kings is holding a tiny silver coin of a king who claims to be the son of a god and the high priest of Roman peace!
It is interesting to speculate why Jesus needed to possess the coin in the first place. Surely, he could have answered their question without seeing it. This episode took place in the Temple. I suspect Jesus asked for a coin because by producing it, the Pharisee’s disciples and Herodians revealed their own religious hypocrisy … by bringing a profane object, the coin of a pagan, into the sacred space of the Temple.
The tax story took place a few days before Jesus’ crucifixion. On Monday, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, and the people hail Him as the Messiah. On Tuesday, he violently chases the money changers out of the temple. This likely confused the people greatly, as they were expecting Messiah to overthrow the Roman system, not the Jewish one. It is now Wednesday and Jesus is now back teaching in the Temple. He’ll be dead by Friday.
Of course, the Jewish leaders are furiously irate. He laid bare their hypocrisy, pride, and selfishness. He hated their brand of religion. He usurped their authority. Worse than all that … the people liked Jesus!! They nearly burst with envy and jealousy. Jesus needed to be stopped at any cost, lest they lose their place in society. So, they come up with a plan to discredit Him. In the previous chapter they ask Jesus; “”By what authority do you do these things? And who gave you this authority”. In other words, the plan is to prove Jesus is a fraud.
In response, Jesus then launches into three parables; 1) the parable of the two sons, 2) the parable of the vineyard, and 3) the parable of the wedding feast. All three parables point to the fact that they, the Pharisees, had no authority and were under God’s judgment. Talk about turning the tables!
The attempt to discredit Jesus based on Torah fell flat on its face. The new plan is to discredit Jesus by bringing Rome into the picture. The plan was to trap Jesus into giving an answer that would make it appear to Rome that Jesus was inciting rebellion to overthrow the very foundations of Roman power. And that’s when the tax story is told.
THE ELABORATE TRAP
The opening gambit trap: ““Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth”.
Their obvious insincere flattery has a devious logic behind it. By addressing Jesus as “Teacher” (‘Rabbi’ or ‘Master’ in other translations) they are both acknowledging and challenging Jesus’ authority as a religious teacher. Their question now becomes one of religious law. Of course, the Pharisees believed only they, alone, were the authoritative interpreters of Jewish law. So, they forced Jesus into giving an answer. If he refuses to answer he will lose credibility with the very people who just proclaimed him King during the Triumphal Entry. They also forced Him to give an answer based on Scripture.
It is interesting to speculate why they asked the question in the first place. Like any good lawyer, they would only ask a question whereby the answer was reasonably expected and known beforehand. And they fully expected Jesus to say, “No, it is not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar.”.
Why did they expect that answer? First, because based on Jewish religious law, it was the correct answer. But, I suspect there is more to it than that. Jesus must have given the Pharisees and Herodians cause to believe that Jesus on other occasions taught that paying tribute to Rome was immoral. Don’t forget that one of the three charges Rome used against Jesus to crucify Him was that He did not pay the tax. That charge could not have been this particular instance because after Jesus answered them, the text says that the Herodians “marveled” (other translations say “perplexed”) and simply left, unable to accuse Jesus of anything. Therefore, I just can’t imagine there weren’t other instances where Jesus spoke against the Roman tax.
The “can’t win” trap question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”
They thought they had Jesus trapped!! If Jesus says “Yes”;
— It would have made Him a collaborator with the Roman occupiers
— It would have alienated the people against Him.
If Jesus says “No”;
— He would have been considered a political criminal of the worst kind
— He would incur the full wrath of Rome.
In either case, he would have likely been killed … perhaps on the spot. But, Jesus immediately recognizes the trap, and exposes the hostility and the hypocrisy of His interrogators.
THE BRILLIANT NON-ANSWER
““Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
The first observation, a painfully obvious one, is that Jesus does not directly answer the question. There isn’t a “Yes” or “No” response. Instead, He makes a comment that leads to question-begging; what exactly does belong to Caesar, what exactly does belong to God? He didn’t answer that either. Because …. the Jews already knew that answer.
Everything belongs to God! The heavens belong to God; “To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it.” The earth belongs to God; ‘the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it’. Cows and animals belong to God; “For every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills.” The land belongs to God; “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is mine, and you are but aliens who have become my tenants.” The treasures in the earth belong to God; “’The silver is mine and the gold is mine’, declares the Lord Almighty”. Your very breath belongs to God; “You turn your face away, they suffer, you stop their breath, they die. You give breath, fresh life begins.”. And when you breath you last breath in this temporal plane, your very soul belongs to God; “Behold all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine.”
So, think about it. What is left to give to Caesar? Nothing!
Jesus surreptitiously (the Romans never caught on!) declares that the claims of Caesar (he thought he owned everything) and the claims of God are mutually exclusive. To those who have faith, God owns everything, and Caesar’s claims are, by necessity, illegitimate. Therefore, you owe him nothing! To those who do not have faith, Caesar is owed at least the coin that bears his image. Jesus invites the listeners, again surreptitiously, to choose their allegiance.
The Tribute story is very similar in form to the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery. Here, once again, the Pharisees attempt to trap Jesus by asking a loaded question; should the adulteress be stoned according to the Law? If Jesus says ‘yes, stone her’, then he gives a legally correct answer, but it undermines his message of mercy and forgiveness. If He says ‘no’, then he gives a morally correct answer, but it undermines his authority as Rabbi by not adhering to the Law..
In both cases, people would turn against Him. Instead, Jesus gives another non-answer; “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” No one in the audience was hoping Jesus would say, “Stone her!!”. Likewise, no one in the Tribute story was hoping Jesus would say, “Pay tax to the Roman oppressors!”. But, here is the very salient point; the audience of that day would have inferred the right answer embedded in Jesus’ non-answer response!
Absolutely no one would have mistaken Jesus’ non-direct response as the go-ahead to stone the woman. Likewise, absolutely no one would have mistaken Jesus’ non-direct response as an endorsement of paying Caesar’s taxes. In fact, the exact opposite is true; His Jewish audience would have understood that Jesus meant the tribute was illicit. It was only the Romans (and most Americans) who foolishly believed Jesus’ comments benefited government tax coffers.
Does Jesus Compartmentalize?? The other major flaw I see in the Jesus-endorses-taxes theory is that it artificially forces Jesus’ belief system into two compartments; compartment #1 is stuff that belongs to God and, compartment #2 is stuff that belongs to Caesar … two separate and distinct spheres of activity. How is this believable?? Where else does Jesus do this? He seems to me to be an “all in” type of Teacher. Pick one, or pick another, but you can’t pick both. If you believe that Jesus is teaching that sometimes we need to choose for God and against Caesar, then the opposite must also be logically true – that one can choose for Caesar and against God. Perish the thought!
That there are two separate and distinct realms, Caesar’s and God’s, makes sense to most Americans given our Constitutional decree … the separation of church and state. But, that doesn’t make the popular Tribute interpretation correct. It merely points to the fact that one should never interpret Scripture with “American eyes”, for doing so will inevitably lead you far astray.
I’m not trying to convince anyone to not pay their taxes. If you think it’s your patriotic and civic duty to pay taxes, then by all means do so. Just don’t think you’re doing God’s will! On the other hand, maybe someday you’ll be in heaven standing next to a young girl who was murdered via collateral-damage from an American Drone mission, and God will say, “Bob, your taxes paid for that.”, and I wonder how you will feel. What I’m saying is that if you need a religious reason to not pay taxes, maybe you have one now.
The pro-tax position of the Tribute story simply is not supportable historically, rhetorically, contextually, or spiritually. The only support for the pro-tax position amounts to little more than “it sounds reasonable”, while ignoring all other evidence against their position.
The Greek word translated “render” is ‘apodidomi’ which means “to give back.”. With that in mind, here is my paraphrase of the appropriate passage;
“Jesus looked at the coin and said, “Sure, that looks like his image. It’s his. Go ahead, give him back his coin! And, by the way, everything else belongs to God!”
That sounds more like Jesus.