Giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s is a Christian Duty


give to caesarMany verses in the Bible are misquoted, misinterpreted, or taken out of context or their contextual meaning. Some of the worse violations in this regard involve Jesus’ statements concerning money and finances.

Among the most misquoted is “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.”

The quote is taken from a story that occurs in several Gospels, including Mark, specifically 12:13-18, as well as Luke. For clarity’s sake I will use Mark’s version to provide a quick summary.

In the story, Pharisees and Herodians are sent to speak to Jesus. The Pharisees were a traditional, conservative sect within Judaism at the time, and the Herodians most likely some sort of a political entity friendly to the family of Herod Antipater, who was tetrarch of Galilee at the time.

First, they flatter Jesus by calling him a man of integrity and pretending to be authentic and ingenuous about their concern for the law and following God. They then ask him whether they should pay taxes to Caesar or not.

Jesus immediately accuses them of hypocrisy and demands to see a denarius, which was a Roman coin. After they produce one, Jesus asks them whose inscription is on it. When they reply it is Caesar, Jesus answers, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.”

Mark writes “they were amazed at his answer.” In Luke’s Gospel, the men were “astonished by his answer, (and) they became silent.”

A ‘GOTCHA’ QUESTION

It is important to contextualize the situation.

At the time of this story, Jesus had entered Jerusalem for the Passover on a donkey during the triumphant entry, which is now called Palm Sunday. The large welcoming he receives made his enemies jealous, as well as concerned he would attempt to rebel against the Roman government and bring disaster down on them.

To get rid of him, the religious and political enemies of Jesus attempt to trap him in his own words – similar to a modern day political “gotcha!” question.

One important observation to make is the intent of the men who ask the question.

Luke’s account (20:20-26) describes them as spies who hope to catch Jesus in something he said to hand him over to the government.

Thus, the question they asked him was strictly to trap him in a no-win situation.

Had Jesus answered they were not required to pay taxes to Caesar, it would have qualified as preaching rebellion against the Roman government and would have been appropriate grounds to have him arrested by the authorities. In fact, during Jesus’ eventual trial, many of the Jewish chief priests would later falsely claim to Pontius Pilate Jesus had preached this.

On the other hand, had Jesus replied they should pay taxes to Caesar, the spies would have then used his answer to stir up a mob and have him stoned or killed. Roman rule over Palestine was extremely unpopular among many Jews during the time, which is why the region suffered from so many insurrections, rebellions and revolts. Many Jews believed it was wrong to pay taxes to a pagan government and despised many of their own people for working as tax collectors, like St. Matthew, who was a tax collector before Jesus called him. Some Jews also did not consider the Romans their legitimate rulers; thus, for Jesus to say they should pay taxes would, in their mind, giving the Roman rule legitimacy and indirectly condemning Jewish nationalism.

Also, Passover was one of the most important of Jewish religious holidays, which meant the people would already be in a highly religious and patriotic mood, making it easy to manipulate them.

QUESTION ACT OF REVENGE

Additionally, if one reads the previous section before this incident, one will discover the spies were using the exact same trick question Jesus had used against them.

In both Mark and Luke’s gospels, the chief priests and elders of the law challenge Jesus’s authority to teach and preach from the Torah, since he was not a trained rabbi, and demand to know where his authority comes from. Jesus replies he would answer the question if they first answer his: Where had John the Baptist’s authority come from, men or God?

Discussing it amongst themselves, they realize they can’t answer it either way; if they say John’s authority came from God, why hadn’t they accepted his teachings of repentance? If they say his authority came from men, i.e. he made it all up, they fear being stoned by the people, who firmly believed John had been a prophet.

Thus, they aren’t able to give an answer because they lack of the courage to stand by their convictions, a fault they know very well Jesus did not suffer from himself.

So the question of paying taxes to Caesar is an attempt at revenge for humiliating them, knowing he has the bravery to say what he believes regardless of how unpopular it is.

Jesus response showcases both his brilliant wit and his divine knowledge.

In Luke’s Gospel, he immediately confronts them for their deceit, calling them hypocrites, and asks them why they intend to trap him.

Right away, he using showing them he knows their hearts and hasn’t been fooled for an instant. He also points out their hypocrisy because he knows if they were asked the same question, they wouldn’t answer it. This puts them on the defensive.

It is also significant to note whom the spies were; one group, the Pharisees, were generally opposed to the Roman government and disliked paying taxes; the other group, the Herodians, supported or at the very least were open to the Romans and most likely supported the taxation. So no matter what answer he gave, he was guaranteed to offend one of the groups.

After having chastised them, Jesus then asks them to show him a denarius. When they do, he inquires whose face is on it. When they reply it is Caesar’s, Jesus answers their question: Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.

OMITTING THE SECOND PART OF THE ANSWER

Most people only know the first part of this quote; and even those who know the other half don’t understand what Jesus meant by it.

As I see it, the point Jesus was making is that a denarius bears the image of Caesar. Therefore, if Caesar issues a tax, it should be paid.

In other words, his answer is yes, the Jews should pay taxes to Caesar if required to.

But the other half of the answer is the most insightful. He says to them “Give to God what is God’s.”

When he says this, he is referring to mankind, which bears the image and likeness of God. Therefore, men should give what God demands of them as well. And God made it clear in the Old Testament they were to love him with all their heart, soul, and strength.

This is what makes Jesus’ answer so profound. In addition to saying the Jews should submit to the Roman government, Jesus is telling them that they should be as equally concerned, if not more concerned, about submitting to what God asks of them.

He is essentially putting God’s commandments above Caesar’s decrees and laws while simultaneously telling people to obey Caesar. He is effectively disarming any qualms the Herodians may have about his answer, while making it impossible for the Pharisees to accuse him of putting obedience to Rome above obedience to God. Additionally, he is chastising them for their obsession with money rather than spirituality.

The phrase “Render unto Caesar’s that which is Caesar’s” is often used in a very pro-statism and totalitarian manner. When used, it generally means whatever the government wants of its citizens it owns or is entitled to.

Those who use only the first part of the phrase miss the entire point Jesus made; our focus should not be so much on money and the government as it is on God. This was a direct attack on the Sadducees, Herodians and other chief priests who placed their allegiance to Rome – the government – above God. It was the chief priest who would later say at Jesus’ trial “We have no king but Caesar.”

The underlying message, however, is that Christians should “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” as long as it does not belong to God, and it would be foolish to think there is anything we could “render unto God” which is Caesar’s, i.e the government, because everything is created by God.

For Christians today, this means while we should be concerned about matters such as taxes and money, we shouldn’t become so obsessed with money and taxes to the point where we forget our obedience to God.

photo by tonynetone

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Written by TJ

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