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)

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

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:

  1. Pay the tax because Emperor Caesar does the will of God
  2. Give money to Caesar, but give all else, including yourself, to God
  3. Do not pay the tax because everything belongs to God
  4. 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 , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Jesus: “You cannot serve God and mammon”
    – Matthew 6:24

    I wonder how the above earlier remark by Jesus, pertinently also in Matthew, might bear light on this later remark by Jesus you’ve put up for discussion – “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”. Matthew 22:21

    Shalom brother.

  2. It could be read as simply an example of Jesus’ street smarts in the face of a hostile society. From this perspective it tells us almost nothing about our dealings with ceasar. I think the real problem is our tendency to presume a text like this can ground our understanding of political realities in the 21st century.

  3. It certainly is an example of Rabbinic Questioning… Where we see Jesus answering a question with a question… Certainly an ingenious response to a hostile inquirer!

  4. Good questions. The “denarius” inscription declared Tiberius Caesar the “Worshipful Son of God”….. would Jesus instruct people to use such coins and pay taxes to someone making such a claim? He calls the Pharisees hypocrites…why? Because they used the coins, because of their relationship to the corrupt government or maybe because they were “testing” Jesus (God)?

    In answering, I think He is reminding listeners that God alone is to be worshiped. That leads me to ask….In todays world is our allegiance, love or focus compromised by faith we place in idols such as money, nationalism, greed, world systems, political parties, religion etc? To whom or what are we paying taxes?

    Am “listening” for others thoughts…..

  5. How would Rom 13v1 inform our understanding?

  6. Christ’s statement to “render unto Caesar’s that which is Caesar’s” is a call to “choose ye this day whom ye will serve.” It might do us all well to check ourselves and question who we really look to for our maintenance, safety, guidance, and protection – God or Caesar?”

    Jesus had much to say and do pertaining to taxes and tax collectors. Taxes and their collection most assuredly were not something he ignored as beneath his spiritual wisdom. My search for the word “tax” in all of its forms in the synoptic gospels had 34 returns, so I treat the issue as vital to an understanding of Jesus.

    Consider: Taxation may be the root cause of most of the evil in the world today. No one who participates in taxation by levying, collecting, receiving or benefiting therefrom can live by Jesus’ “Golden Rule,” doing to others as they would have others do to them. No one involved in taxation can adhere to Jesus’ admonition in his Sermon on the Mount to renounce the use of force and violence in the conduct of one’s affairs, even in the face of a forceful attack. Of course once it is found that taxes can fund the basic requirements of a government, the people who comprise the government (the ruling class) will find a host of other uses for tax revenues.

    Taxation requires the initiation of force or coercion against harmless, innocent people, if for no other reason than to fund the violent state, which is utterly dependent upon it. Furthermore, the people who are most responsible for the initiation of force and violence to provide for their daily bread and their many other munificent emoluments are considered by most citizens as their nations’ leaders. With their reliance on forcible taxes, the leaders lead entire nations of people into sinfulness. As they go about stealing the fruits of people’s labor to fund murderous machines of war, death and destruction, above the din you will hear them cry, ” Jesus said, pay your taxes! “Render unto Caesar!”

    Imagine if Christians had correctly understood Jesus’ teaching on taxes, including his admonition to render nothing to Caesar because everything belongs to God (see, Psalm 24:1, and elsewhere in the OT: “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”) Perhaps the immoral institution of men ruling other men would have gone the way of slavery by now, war would be a thing of the past, and God’s warning through Samuel (1 Samuel 8) to the Hebrews would finally have been heeded.

  7. Rebublicans—“Imagine if Christians had correctly understood Jesus’ teaching on taxes, including his admonition to render nothing to Caesar because everything belongs to God”
    Everything belongs to God–interesting

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