render unto caesar: to pay or not to pay?
[UPDATE: I have added a sequel to this post which explores my perspective on this passage.]
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 toCaesar, 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)
This passage is one of those that garners a wide variety of interpretations. It is interesting that for most Westerners it is taken for granted that Jesus is saying his contemporaries should have faithfully paid their taxes to Caesar.
I think the way we read this passage is important, as it reveals so much about our attitude to the relationship of the Church and civil powers.
In this light I may, in the near future, offer a personal perspective on “Render unto Caesar”, but I acknowledge that in regards to this passage there is no real “gotcha!” argument in favour of any available interpretation. This means that we all need to do a little listening as we seek the truth together.
Did Jesus instruct his hearers to pay taxes to Caesar? What does the answer mean in regards to our modern world, given we live in the midst of a vastly different economic and political situation?
Below are four common readings of Jesus’ response to the Pharisees in this passage that I think cover at least the main bases of interpretive possibilities:
- Pay the tax because Emperor Caesar does the will of God
- Give money to Caesar, but give all else, including yourself, to God
- Do not pay the tax because everything belongs to God
- Pay the tax while recognising God’s greater demand for loyalty
At this point I am keen to open up the comments section to hear from others as to how they understand this passage.
What is your understanding of Jesus’ insistence that his hearers “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”? What are the implications, if any, for us contemporarily?
I look forward to a great discussion.
Posted on March 22, 2012, in Biblical Studies, Economics, New Testament and tagged Caesar Tiberius, Denarius, Matthew 22:15-22, Render Unto Caesar, Taxes, Tiberius, Tribute. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.