One day, a group of Pharisees and Herodians came to Jesus with a question: “Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?”
That these two sects should be working together was a bit odd. The Pharisees were conservatives and nationalists. They saw themselves as champions of the covenant and the Faith. They advocated Jewish independence, albeit somewhat quietly.
The Herodians, on the other hand, were a court party. They supported the claims and interests of Herod Antipas, the Idumean king who ruled as Rome’s puppet over much of Israel. The Herodians were comfortable with the political status quo and quite used to religious compromise. Normally, the Pharisees and the Herodians didn’t get along. But they had found a common enemy in Jesus of Nazareth.
No Safe Answer
Their question was a trap. There was not supposed to be a safe answer. If Jesus sided with the Pharisees and publicly forbade His followers to pay the tribute money, the Herodians could hand Him over to Pilate as a tax rebel and a revolutionary. His execution would have followed quickly. If, however, Jesus sided with the Herodians, He would lose popular support by alienating Jewish national feeling and jeopardize His own claims to the kingship.
But Jesus is God, and He responded to the question with divine perception and wisdom. After rebuking their hypocrisy, He asked to see a Roman denarius: “Show me the tribute money.” This is important. He did not produce the coin from His own pocket or from the common purse of the apostolic band. He asked the Pharisees and Herodians for the coin, and they brought one out. They had the tribute money, Rome’s money, in their own possession. Jesus asked them, “Whose is this image and superscription?” They had to answer, “Caesar’s.”
Jesus then pronounced the immortal words, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things which are God’s.” The tribute coin bore Caesar’s name and image: it must be his. Give it back, Jesus told them. The trap-setters went away, stunned.
What Did Jesus Mean?
The Herodians had no moral arguments on their side, only appeals to political expediency. The Pharisees, however, claimed to stand for God’s righteous rule in human affairs. They were the patriots and the conservatives. We might be tempted to sympathize with their position and suspect that Jesus didn’t really mean quite what He said. Is it possible to expand or improve upon the arguments the Pharisees might have used?
The emperors were wicked men, unworthy of their office. Certainly, Julius Caesar had been a serial adulterer, a bisexual, a socialist, and a tyrant. Augustus and Tiberius were at best idolaters and totalitarians. Caligula and Nero would soon carry evil beyond the limits of human sanity. And all the Caesars suffered from delusions of godhood to one degree or another.
This is all true, but for Jesus it was irrelevant. The issue for Him was not the character of the ruler, but our own obligation and debt. If I am indebted to an evil man, his evil does not free me from my debt. Israel was indebted to Rome. Rome administered justice. Rome built and maintained roads. Rome policed the seas. Rome provided coinage. The denarii that circulated in Israel proved her obligation to Rome. Israel had to pay her bill.
But the tribute money supported and perpetuated a corrupt political system; it financed abominable programs and schemes. The tribute money funded all sorts of horrible things — construction of pagan temples, gladiatorial games, the salaries of corrupt officials. Eventually, it would fund the massacre of the church in Rome. Jesus did not deny this. Instead, He implicitly freed the taxpayer from any complicity in the state’s wickedness. The taxpayer was not giving money to Caesar; but simply returning to Caesar his own money. Jesus tells us not to steal, not even from the state.
But what about the law that forbade Israel to enthrone a Gentile king (Dt. 17:15)? Clearly, God did not want a pagan ruling His covenant people. So Roman rule wasn’t de jure, merely defacto. It was illegitimate and could not claim God’s sanction.
Yet Jesus said otherwise: Caesar does have God’s sanction. God made Caesar king. No, Israel was not to enthrone a pagan king, for she was to be ruled by God. But Israel had rejected God’s rule; she had abandoned His law. So God had handed Israel over to Rome . That was the covenant reality and the political fact. For Israel to appeal to the law she had rejected to escape the punishment she now deserved was trifling and hypocritical. Repentance required her to kiss the rod and pay her taxes.
Render Unto God
But a man must choose his lord; after all, no man can serve two masters. We must either render tribute to Caesar or to God. Jesus, however, rejected this conflict, too. Obedience to God and obedience to Caesar need not be mutually exclusive because they are — or should be — of different sorts. And here we must return to the rest of Christ’s command: “Render…unto God the things that are God’s.”
What exactly belongs to God? Everything: our worship, our obedience, our tithes and offerings, our children. Our life in civil society is God’s. So is our relationship to the civil magistrate, whether he be emperor, president, or governor. Paying taxes to Caesar is part of our duty to God; it is an expression of His kingdom. For the powers that be are ordained of God, and Caesar is God’s minister, regardless of his own moral character or his socialist agenda (Rom. 13:1-8).
Jesus never intended His answer to divide life into two compartments, the one religious and the other civil. His answer subordinates all of life to God and His rule. It fixes our earthly citizenship and civil responsibilities within the kingdom of God. It puts tax paying and all other earthly affairs on God’s terms. No, we may not foment civil rebellion. That’s all right, though. The spiritual weapons that Christ has given us are still powerful enough to transform nations and kingdoms and to turn the world upside down — again.
- Greg Uttinger
Greg Uttinger teaches theology, history, and literature at Cornerstone Christian School in Roseville, California. He lives nearby in Sacramento County with his wife, Kate, and their three children.