A group of Pharisees confronted Jesus and asked for a yes or no answer on whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, the Roman emperor.
Jesus responded by asking whose face was engraved on the coins used to pay the taxes. When they answered it was Caesar’s face, Jesus replied with the now-famous phrase, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s”
Here’s the passage:
“Then the Pharisees met together to plot how to trap Jesus into saying something for which he could be arrested. They sent some of their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to meet with him. “Teacher,” they said, “we know how honest you are. You teach the way of God truthfully. You are impartial and don’t play favorites. Now tell us what you think about this: Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
But Jesus knew their evil motives. “You hypocrites!” he said. “Why are you trying to trap me? Here, show me the coin used for the tax.” When they handed him a Roman coin, he asked, “Whose picture and title are stamped on it?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. “Well, then,” he said, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” His reply amazed them, and they went away. [Matthew 22:16-22 NLT]
This story about paying taxes has been variously interpreted in many ways, some of which are quite the opposite to each other, and I find none of them very compelling. People with every political viewpoint have attempted to justify their pet policies using this verse.
However, I think Jesus’ point has far less to do about taxes and much more to do with how we should relate to the government versus how we should relate to God.
I think we need to dig deeper into the story to reveal its true meaning.
If you’ve ever written your name on something, for example in the fly-leaf of a book, or in your kid’s jacket, you probably did so to denote ownership or to make sure it was returned if lost. Maybe today you’d rather use AirTags, but the idea is the same. This was certainly true In ancient times, when an image stamped on an object was also intended to show ownership. We today have expanded on this idea and you will be very familiar with the icons, logos and symbols on products we own from Nike to Apple, to denote their origin. Which would you rather have, a “flying B” for a top-of-the-line Bentley, or the simple elongated cross of a lowly Chevrolet vehicle?
In Jesus’ time, Roman coinage carried the image of Caesar. But since the Roman emperor also viewed himself as a god, many Jews objected to paying taxes with Roman money, viewing it as a form of idolatry. Jesus, of course, saw right through their straw man argument as a hypocritical attempt to trap him into saying something that would get him arrested by either the Romans or the Jewish authorities.
Jesus exposes the flaw in their argument by acknowledging the image of Caesar, but not condemning it. Caesar’s right to claim taxes was backed up by his image appearing on the Roman money. The image was not a demand for worship, it was just a demonstration of ownership.
However, as Jesus so often did, He turned the discussion from the initial question to the more relevant issues behind it. The second part of His answer, to give “to God what is God’s”, serves as a reminder that we need to focus on our relationship with God.
Whether the Jewish audience paid their taxes or not, it was more important for them to focus on honoring their own “image” — the image of God imprinted on every human being created in His likeness. Like the image of Caesar, the image of God suggests God’s ownership and sovereignty over us. It’s far more important to make sure we’re pleasing God than the human government. We belong to God, not the government. Any government that denies this is wrong and should not replace God.
This story, sometimes in conjunction with Peter’s declaration to obey God rather than man, is often used to justify the notion that the church and the government should have have little or no collaborative relationship. While government and the church have historically had some fights, Jesus definitely promoted an attitude of respect and honor toward the government.
This respect takes the form of obeying the law, paying taxes, and honoring our elected representatives. We do well to remember that the government in Jesus’ day was totalitarian and ruled by a dictator, not democratic with elected representatives. Even if we don’t like our current political leaders, citizens have placed them there through fair and open elections. If even the Roman government deserved the Jews’ respect, our much more fair government deserves ours.
It’s difficult to set unambiguous rules for us as Christians dictating how we should interact with our government. Not every law passed is moral, and not every government official deserves our respect. The Bible itself records instances where rebels are commended for resisting or overthrowing a wicked ruler. But just as we can’t use the Bible to justify unconditionally obeying everything the government says, we likewise can’t use the Bible to justify the complete opposite behavior.
Whatever conclusion you come to should be reached through much thought and prayer about the proper way to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.
There again, as creator, God owns everything! Let’s start with honoring God and all other obligations will assume their proper place.
Blessings on you and yours, Jim Black
P.S. if you’d like to read previous ruminations of mine they can be found at https://salvationarmyconcordca.org/chronicle/