show me the tribute money: a perspective on “render unto caesar”

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they senttheir disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away. (Matthew 22:15-22)

Recently I posted about the above passage, asking people to contribute their thoughts. From that attempt I gather that people are more comfortable responding to a positive contribution than to an open-ended invitation; in this post I will attempt to oblige this preference.

As I said in my original post, the way we interpret the above passage and its parallels says a lot about our methods of reading the Bible and our understanding of the connection between the Church and civil powers, or alternatively between discipleship and citizenship.

The standard way Evangelicals read this passage, at least in my experience, is that Jesus is teaching people to pay taxes to Caesar, and thus to submit to authorities, but give themselves to God. Implicit in this reading is an assumption about the distinction between civil life and religion. This reading, very often taken for granted with no further exploration, is often backed up with a reference to Romans 13.

I have written on Romans 13 previously, and I don’t intend to explore it here. I do however intend to go beyond mere assumption in our reading of Matthew 22:15-22 (and parallels) and explore what the text might actually be saying, rather than what our ideological commitments might require. This is particularly true of those who believe the Gospels have little to say about first century politics and society – when they arrive at this story they freely insert their own ideology to fill the assumed void.

The problem for interpreters of this passage, as with many others, is that we read it in isolation. The result, says Ched Myers of Mark’s version of the story, is that “the subtleties of the story become ambiguities.”

The truth is that in this story Jesus is not giving us a general, abstract principle about taxation and citizenship. If he were we could not assume to apply it to our modern contexts since our realities of taxation and citizenship are quite different. In regard to citizenship the modern division between “church” and “state” would be quite unknown to Jesus and his contemporaries.

Our first clue as to the meaning of the story is in the narrative context. Jesus is in Jerusalem teaching in the Temple (cf. 21:23) having already cleansed it as an act of judgement (21:12-17). Following this story Jesus tells a number of parables which reject the legitimacy of the politico-religious leaders of the Jerusalem cult and assert that the kingdom belongs to those on the margins of society (21:28-22:14). In short he has been undermining the authority of these leaders and exposing their corruption, and our relevant passage falls within this stream.

The characters within the episode, portrayed as Jesus’ opponents, are the Pharisees, and less centrally the Herodians. The Pharisees, not very powerful in Jesus’ day, but much more so in the time of Matthew’s community, have already plotted to destroy Jesus (12:14), and the Herodians are implicated by association in John the Baptist’s death (14:1-12). This is important, because it frames the motive behind the question these characters ask Jesus.

The question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” is no mere harmless point of interest – it is a politically charged topic! Matthew takes for granted that his readers know this. Taxes, exacted by Herod for himself and for Rome, were incredibly high and, unlike in the modern Western world, were not used to administer social services but to line the pockets of those in power. Refusal to pay Roman tax was viewed as rebellion against the Empire. Indeed, many times taxation served as a primary motivation for peasant uprisings.

The question of whether to pay taxes to Rome was widespread. Both answers were, for Jesus, dangerous: to encourage cooperation with Rome was to encourage further suffering for his largely poor followers, possibly eroding his authority or putting him offside with violent revolutionaries; to encourage nonpayment was to open himself to the charge of rebellion against Rome and thus execution.

Jesus recognises the question as a “test” (22:18). The Pharisees are not asking this question because they value Jesus’ opinion, but because they want to destroy him; indeed Jesus has proclaimed judgement on them and has undermined their legitimacy. For this reason we should be cautious in taking Jesus’ answer at face value since it is not a response to a friendly question, but an avoidance of a potentially life-threatening situation!

Of course, Jesus’ authority has been challenged earlier only a few episodes prior (21:23-27). In that instance his technique in the face of an aggressive question is to engage in noncooperation, instead turning the question around on his opponents leaving them dumbfounded.

In the face of another aggressive and purposely explosive question Jesus must apparently decide between alignment with Roman taxation or open rebellion against Caesar. Rather than answer the question with one of these two options, Jesus chooses again to turn the question on his opponents, revealing their hypocrisy once more.

Jesus’ response, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” is no mere counsel to dual allegiance to both God and Caesar, a temptation for those of us who are not used to reading subtext and subtlety. The problem for Western interpreters is that our freedom of speech blinds us to the fact that most people in human history have not been free to say what they like for fear of retribution by ruling forces. As in contemporary military states and dictatorships, those living in first century Palestine, occupied by Rome as it was, would have had to speak very carefully, lest any eavesdropper overhear something perceived as potentially subversive. In such a case they could be punished, even executed. This is one reason why people within contemporary non-Western cultures tend to be less outspoken, less literal and less direct in their speech-making (and perhaps why Westerners are often so frustrated by conversations with such people). It is no wonder the Pharisees flatter Jesus by saying, “we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances” – they are daring Jesus to be forthright in his response!

The point here is that, in such a setting of imperial occupation, we need to be listening to what Jesus is not saying since he canno simply speak forthrightly. By telling his hearers to give to Caesar what is his, and to give to God what is his, what might Jesus mean? If Psalm 24:1* is any indication, Jewish belief insisted that everything belonged to God. “Give to God what belongs to God” is code, undecipherable to Roman soldiers patrolling the Temple precinct, that ultimately nothing belongs to Caesar because everything belongs to God.

A Denarius from around the time of Jesus inscribed with the face of Caesar Tiberius.

In his response Jesus refuses to answer the question directly, preferring to encode a message within the layers of the Jewish Scriptures for which the Pharisees claimed to be so pious. Jesus, as with the previous parables, exposes the hypocrisy embedded in the question of the leaders – they themselves, by submitting to Roman power and carrying Roman coins inscribed with Caesar’s image, have committed idolatry (some Jews regarded the mere circulation of Roman coins as idolatry). Jesus is not even primarily concerned with the tax, and to focus time on debating that issue is really to miss the point of the story; instead his response could be understood as asking, whose image are you carrying, Caesar’s or God’s?

(Perhaps this is why Matthew and the other Gospel authors seem to make a conscious effort to distance Jesus from the coin [22:19].)

In short, Jesus draws a direct comparison between Caesar and God and asks, who does your allegiance belong to? The two figures are stated as competing opposites, not as congruent cohabiters. Ultimately Jesus is not so much interested in answering the question as in revealing the corruption and hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Whether he paid the tax, or encouraged others to do so, is not at all clear. He simply calls people to act according to their loyalties, and seeks to reveal what those loyalties truly are.

For Jesus to talk constantly throughout Matthew and the Gospels about a ‘kingdom of God/heaven’ while living under the kingdom of Rome is not a neat metaphor, but a subversive claim of non-allegiance to Rome and Caesar. The tax question is secondary – what is really at stake is the question of our faithfulness to God over-against all else, including oppressive powers, even states.

Such subtlety is not desirable to those who want easy answers, but discipleship is not about black and white answers (“Should they have paid the tax?” “Should we pay/do _____ ?”) so much as wrestling with the reality of following the person of Jesus in the contexts we find ourselves in.

Who are we loyal to? That question, my friends, is much more difficult than “should we pay a tax?”


* “The earth is the Lord’s and all that fills it
the world and those who dwell therein…”

Posted on April 2, 2012, in Biblical Studies, New Testament, Politics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Andrewthemenace

    Very good Matt. Thanks so much for delving into this. I certainly had my eyes opened a fair bit by your comments and completely agree. Love Psalm 24:1… I think we forget this sometimes.

  2. Joshua Bleyerveen

    Great post Matt!

  1. Pingback: render unto caesar: to pay or not to pay? « life.remixed

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