Summary: Jesus’ statement about giving tax money to Caesar is far from a blanket approval of paying all taxes, and carries a more profound meaning than people realize if they don’t know the context of his words.
The Deadly Trap
…they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor. 21 So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God. 22 Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” 23 But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, 24 “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” 25 He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 26 And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent. – Luke 20:20-26 (See also: Mark 12:13-17 and Matthew 22:15-22) (ESV)
Anyone who begins to read even one of the four Gospels soon realizes Jesus made enemies. It’s not that he set out to do that; it resulted from his words and actions. Anger and jealousy against Jesus led some of his own countrymen to plot his death. Jewish leaders in Judaea at this time did not have the political authority to put anyone to death for a crime. That is the verdict of the majority of scholars today. Only Roman authority could inflict capital punishment. Knowing this, some Jesus-haters planned a trap for him. In their minds it would accomplish one of two things. It would either cause many of Jesus’ followers to lose confidence in him, or it would bring about his death by Roman law for political subversion.
Is it Lawful…?
The place to set a trap like this was in public, in full view, where people could see and hear Jesus. The trap itself took the form of a question. “Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” Now that’s the kind of question a teacher of the Law should be able to answer. It is an important question yet today. It involves real life, not abstractions. Any question beginning with “Is it lawful” was a question to be taken seriously. Traps work because the prey is unsuspecting and walks into the trap.
Their plan was this: if Jesus should answer yes, thousands of people who desired to be free from Roman tyranny would see him as a weak-spined Roman sympathizer, a coward who was afraid to speak up against unjust authority as John the Baptist had done. Patriots throughout the land would reconsider all those good things they had heard about Jesus. His reputation would be tarnished to say the least.
If Jesus should say no, he would immediately find himself charged with a capital crime against the Emperor himself. His opponents knew it, and they hoped Jesus wouldn’t realize the malicious intent in asking. Those who asked this question would likely be the very same people who reported Jesus to the Romans immediately after hearing an incriminating answer from him.
Even if Jesus simply refused to answer the question in this lose/lose scenario, there would be a kind of hollow victory for his opponents. They would have silenced Jesus, embarrassed him in public. But Jesus gave them an answer, and it didn’t mean what it is so often taken to mean today. To really hear Jesus’ answer, we have to step into the context of First Century Judaism in the biblical land of Judaea.
The question beginning: Is it lawful… means: Is it lawful according to the Law of Moses, the Torah. All Jews were to honor God and his Law. According to their own Scriptures, could they lawfully participate in paying tribute money to other nations, especially to the Romans who oppressed them and used the money to fund injustice? It would be that same Law that Jesus would now use to confound his opponents.
Show Me a Denarius
Jesus asked them for a coin so that he might illustrate the point he was about to make. They gladly provided it as they listened for a concrete answer to go with this tangible coin. Notice that Jesus did not have such a coin. He had done what he called his disciples to do as he proclaimed the Kingdom. He gave up wealth. His needs and those of his disciples were provided by others: 2 …some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means. Luke 8:2-3. Judas Iscariot was the steward of this contributed money. (John 13:29)
The coin was most probably a Tiberian denarius, a day’s wage. And this is where the Law of Moses comes in….“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them…” (Exodus 20:4)
On that coin was the raised image of Tiberius Caesar. One could easily believe that the coin itself was an idol in every sense of the word. Even worse, blasphemous lettering around the perimeter of the face of the coin said Caesar was a god.
Should a faithful Jew have such an object in his possession? Every Jew knew that in the outer precinct of the Temple money changers sat at their tables so that no currency like this would enter the holy courts for offerings of any kind. The Roman money would be changed for money that did not bear the marks of idolatry. (See the discovery of a biblical stone weight for paying taxes at the Temple)
The very fact that Jesus’ opponents had such a coin in their possession suddenly reflected upon them negatively. But Jesus hadn’t answered yet. He directed everyone’s attention to the coin: “Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” (v. 24). The coin was currency, and really belonged to Tiberius Caesar. It was a medium of exchange, but it was the property of the emperor. His questioners answered: “Caesar’s” (v. 24).
Given this context, Jesus’ words “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” really might be paraphrased this way: ‘Send the idolatrous coins back where they came from, and get them out of your hands. Have nothing to do with them.’ That’s the way Jesus was living; he practiced what he preached. This is a very different meaning from: ‘Yes, you should pay your fair share of taxes, because it is your duty.’ That is how many have understood it, but a number of New Testament scholars including N.T. Wright believes there’s more here.
Jesus had more to say, just as the Law had more to say. “…and to God the things that are God’s.” (v. 25). Jesus’ opponents and any bystanders knew what that involved—
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD 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.” – Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (ESV)
Jesus moved the focus of this discussion back where it belonged, on the things of God. Now it was for his opponents to give up their attachments to idolatry and find a higher way to live. They were supposed to know that. And loving the Lord with all one’s heart, soul, and might would never involve seeking to destroy a prophet, let alone the Holy One of God now among them.
Jesus had given an answer to their question that could not be taken as politically or legally damning, nor could it be taken as a sell-out of his fellow patriotic Jews. No one could fault Jesus for his answer to this question, not Jew nor Gentile. Instead, his answer had its way of convicting those who heard it. Jesus’ opponents not only failed to get Jesus into their trap, they came out looking insincere themselves, in need of a lesson in Torah priorities. No one could do anything else than respect Jesus for his answer. That’s why the Bible says they were amazed. (Are taxes only a modern burden?)
What More Does the Bible say about Taxes?
There’s more to be said about Jesus and taxes. A short, often overlooked story found only in Matthew (17:24-27) is about whether Jesus the Son of Man truly owed taxes, or was like the kings of the earth that are not expected to pay them. Jesus sent Peter to catch a single fish, and in its mouth was a coin. Fish are attracted to shiny objects. Someone in a boat had lost a coin and this fish had found it. But the fish was caught in a miraculous manner, immediately biting on Peter’s hook with tax money inside. So neither Jesus nor Peter toiled for this coin; it was “found money”. The point: Jesus’ followers are not to give unnecessary offense to those in authority by holding back taxes, but make no mistake, the Son of Man is in no sense less of a king than any ruler on earth!
“What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free.” – Matthew 17:25-26 (ESV)
In his Letter to the Romans Paul writes that believers in Jesus are to cooperate with the authorities whenever that is possible for them to do. That includes paying taxes. They are to see the authorities as ideally an extension of God’s rule in the world for purposes of good.
Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. – Romans 13:5-7 (ESV)
Who is Caesar Now?
There can come times when believers must not support the work of civil government. The practice of hiding Jews before and during WWII is an example of righteous rebellion against evil in the form of government. You know this: Jesus did not simply say to pay all taxes because it is your duty. His words go much deeper than that. Loving God with heart, soul, and might could under some circumstances mean disobedience, rather than obedience to government.
When does that situation arise, where is that line not to cross, when believers cannot comply with the demands of a civil government? We don’t expect it. We hope we never have to see it. But loving God with heart, soul, and might in a changing world requires you to keep on thinking.
TOP PHOTO: The Tribute Money by James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum. (public domain)
NOTE: Not every view expressed by scholars contributing Thinker articles necessarily reflects the views of Patterns of Evidence. We include perspectives from various sides of debates on biblical matters so that readers can become familiar with the different arguments involved. – Keep Thinking!