The round of conflict spirals towards its climax. And now, in one of the most well-known traps set for Jesus by his critics, a new and ominous note is struck – the mention of Caesar himself.
But, according to China Miéville in: “A trap is only a trap if you don’t know about it. If you know about it, it’s a challenge.”
It starts with an even acknowledgement of hypocrisy. Jesus’ enemies were “keeping a close watch on him” and sending “spies, who pretended to be sincere.” Their intention was “to catch Jesus in something he said.” And so, dripping with fake earnestness, they appeal to Jesus’ integrity: “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.”
And then the question: “Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
23 He saw through their duplicity and said to them, 24 ‘Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?’
‘Caesar’s,’ they replied.
25 He said to them, ‘Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’
26 They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent.
For centuries, this famous statement has become proverbial -so well-known, in fact,that its subtlety is overwhelmed by its familiarity. Many base their attitude towards government on this very point. It seems at first glance to be the classic statement of separation between church and state, teaching that people should render to each what they ask for in their respective realms.
As George Carlin put it: “I’m completely in favour of the separation of Church and State. My idea is that these two institutions screw us up enough on their own, so both of them together is certain death.”
So is that what Jesus meant?
In their historical context, these words of Jesus had precious little to do with either taxation or political authorityl. First Century Jews were heavily taxed: tithes to the Temple (a whopping 21% a year), customs taxes, land taxes… The question was more specific: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”
Rome had taken control of the Jewish homeland in 63 BC and ruled it through client kings (such as Herod and his sons) and Roman governors. This domination system benefited the elites who created it. Wealth in the ancient world came primarily from agriculture, and the dominant elite extracted about two-thirds of agricultural production. Two thirds! Ninety percent of the population lived this way, reduced to virtual subsistence.
But the tax in question was the annual tribute tax to Rome. Those who endorsed the tax were seen as collaborators with Roman rule; those who didn’t were seen as seditionists. Your attitude to the tax determined where you stood.
Jesus avoided the trap with two moves. First, he asked his opponents for a coin. When they produced one, Jesus looked at it and asked, “Whose image and inscription is this?”
It was, of course, an image of Caesar (presumably of Tiberius, the current Caesar). Moreover, its inscription heralded Tiberius as “son of the divine Augustus” (that is, son of a divine being) and would have been offensive to many Jews. Many devout Jews avoided using coins with images. Thus, by eliciting from his opponents a coin with a graven image, Jesus discredited them with at least some in the crowd.
The coin bearing Caesar’s image set up Jesus’ second move, the famous saying itself: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
In context, the saying is thoroughly ambiguous. The word “render” means “give back.” The first half of the saying could thus mean, “It’s Caesar’s coin-go ahead and give it back to him.” We can imagine Jesus saying this with a dismissive shrug. Rather than a pronouncement about the legitimacy of Roman imperial rule or political authority in general, his words might very well have been a brilliant way of evading the trap.
When its second half is added, the phrase remains equally ambiguous. What belongs to Caesar, and what belongs to God? The possible answers range from “Pay your tribute tax to Caesar, and your temple tax to God” to “Everything belongs to God.” If the latter, what is owed to Caesar? Nothing. But the text itself provides no clue as to what was meant.
Jesus responded in a deliberately enigmatic way in order to avoid the trap set by his opponents. His response was never meant to be figured out. Rather, in this passage as in several others, we see his deft debating skill.
Thus this text offers little or no guidance for filling in tax returns. It neither claims taxation is legitimate nor encourages anarchic tax avoidance.
It neither counsels universal acceptance of political authority nor its reverse.
But it does raise the provocative and still relevant question: What belongs to God, and what belongs to Caesar? And what if Caesar is Hitler, or apartheid, or communism, or global capitalism? What is to be the attitude of Christians toward domination systems, whether ancient or modern?
And on a deeper, personal level, it’s as if Jesus were saying that the whole taxation issue wasn’t the main point. What people did with Caesar’s money didn’t matter nearly as much with what they did with that which belonged to God.
So, what belongs to God? Jesus didn’t answer this question in Luke 20, though his conception of the kingdom of God and his call upon people’s lives suggested an answer. Everything, ultimately. In this age, we don’t control everything—like whether we are required to pay taxes. Yet there is much in our life over which we do have charge. This, all of this, we offer to God in love, worship, and service.
Are you giving to God the things that are God’s in your life? How? Are there places you are holding back? Why? What might you give to God today that you didn’t give yesterday?
Lord Jesus, in faithfulness to you I will continue to pay the taxes I owe, though I must admit I’m not altogether happy about this. More importantly, I am reminded today that I need to give you all that is yours …and that is all of me.
So, today, I give you my body and my mind, my hopes and my fears, my work and my play, my relationships and my time alone. I give you my love and my strength. All that I am, Lord, I give you today. Be glorified and honoured in everything I do and say, in all of my thoughts and dreams.