“Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). Ironically, this passage actually strongly implies that taxation is theft. Notice in v. 22 that the Pharisees marveled at his answer. If a modern reader is being honest with himself, Jesus’ reply really isn’t anything profound without some sort of biblical (like the immediately preceding verses) and historical background to give it more meaning. It brings up more questions than answers and is more of a non-answer than anything. If I were to paraphrase the Pharisees’ response here in light of almost all of modern, evangelical interpretation, it would be a completely serious, “So, Jesus, you are telling us to pay taxes both to Rome and to give to God at the same time. Which is exactly what we were already doing. We are amazed! Why haven’t we thought of this before?” I have always been puzzled why so many smart, modern commentators actually think that is all Jesus is saying here. They rightly point out Jesus’ clever responses to the Pharisees attempts to trap him all throughout the gospels, as well as Jesus’ repeated usage of a fortiori (if x is true, how much more is y true?) argumentation. So, why not here? Could their weak and inconsistent exegesis be due to their desire to uphold the morality of taxation?
In order to understand why the Pharisees legitimately marveled at his answer, we have to have a grasp of the biblical-historical context. Joel McDurmon’s commentary is worth reading in full, but here is an extended excerpt to give you an idea of that context:
The whole narrative in which this story sits deals with this theme of the greater authority of heaven versus earthly authority, and the inability of the Jews to tell the difference. This is the very issue Jesus uses to confound the temple leaders when they ask Him about His authority. But the issue is that heaven has authority which man does not; man’s authorization pales in comparison to God’s. The episode and some attendant parables stung these leaders, and they began to plot, particularly the Pharisees, on how they might “entangle him in his words…
So they apply the trick: “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 to Caesar, or not?”…Most of the commentators seem to think the leaders’ approach to Jesus is mere flattery, as if this country bumpkin from Galilee who receives praise from the people will fall prey to false praise. But this is not the case—He has already outwitted them once—He is no shallow praise-seeker, and they know this by now. They were not trying flatter Him; they were trying to trap Him with God’s Word, as if they said, “You truly serve God only and refuse to bow to any man. Therefore, is it right to give tribute to Caesar?” If the way of God says do not respect persons whether small or mighty, then is it right to pay respect in the form of giving or paying tax to mighty Caesar who is a man? This is the nature of the challenge.
Second, notice they asked a legal question, “Is it lawful….” The word itself leaves it unclear whether they meant Roman law or God’s law, but since it was already Roman law to pay the tax, the question certainly aimed at the law of “the way of God.” The question, again, and the Greek [exestin; cp. exousia, Matt. 21:23] makes it clear that the issue is one of fundamental authority. Does Caesar have legitimate authority to demand tribute? Do we have authority from God to pay to Caesar?
Since the census had to be paid by Roman coinage, Jesus asked to be shown that particular money—the “tribute money” or literally, “the money of the census.” And they brought Him such a Roman coin: a “denarius.” “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They knew already they were in trouble. Jesus simply didn’t throw around the “image” or “likeness” casually. In fact, it only appears in all of the Gospels in their accounts of this story. Why so sparse? Because it is a technical term, a term that has a very specific place in the Jewish religion: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Ex. 20:4). Jesus also specifically made them note the inscription on the coin. This was perhaps more damning than the image. The denarius itself—most likely a coin from the current Emperor—carried not only his image but an inscription that read TIBERIUS CAESAR DIVI AGUSTI FILIUS AGUSTUS (“Tiberius Caesar August Son of the August God”), and the back side continued PONTIFEX MAXIMUS (“High Priest”). If this was not a graven image of a false god, nothing is. And Jesus made it a point to enter these facts into the record.
Keep in mind, this confrontation begins all the way back in Matt. 21:23 and is taking place in the temple. There was a particular taboo about having the idols in the temple itself. Had not Israel been sent into exile for such infractions? Why did these holy men of Israel, Pharisees and Herodians, now have idols in the temple? Why were they so readily able to produce a denarius when Jesus asked? Hypocrites indeed! This hit the Pharisees acutely in that they prided themselves in purity and separation from non-biblical practices. A real poke at their bid for popularity, that!—look everyone, the “Pure” “Holy” Pharisees are carrying false gods through their own Temple! By the way, did you say you wanted me to speak into the microphone? Jesus could have had some real fun here at the expense particularly of the Sadducees (surely close by, as they feature in the next confrontation) who were the Chief Priests of the Temple, including the High Priest. What are you doing carrying a coin around the Temple which bears an inscription that calls Caesar the “High Priest”? You are supposed to be God’s High Priest! Since when did you abdicate your office for the pagan ruler? And it was certainly not an isolated incident, all of the people carried Roman coinage every day. For example, the Temple itself had a yearly head tax that all Jews had to pay, and it was a half-shekel of silver. But they were forbidden to pay that tax with Roman coins. This is why there were moneychangers in the Temple to begin with. They had a virtual monopoly on special silver coins that were acceptable to pay the Temple tax; and as with any monopoly, you can understand how high the exchange was: these guys were extorting people for specialized coinage which they had to have. This is why Jesus called them robbers: they were literally extorting the people. As they were engaged in a forced exchange, they grew rich in terms of Roman coins.
You can imagine, then, that they had tables and bags filled with Roman denarii throughout the Temple courts. In fact, the moneychangers all wore one of these coins in their ear as a mark of their trade. [They have ears but can’t hear (because of their idols)!] You can image that passers-by and pilgrims to the Temple saw plenty of display of these images right there in the Temple itself. You can imagine, also, that as Jesus overturned the chairs and tables and poured out the money, that the streets rang with sound of silver pings and clangs as coins rolled down the stone pavements. [Some (Caesar’s) heads are gonna roll!] The entire Jewish civilization had given in to the usage of idolatrous Roman coins. Roman currency was the basis of their commerce. They had thus, despite whatever idolatry they judged to be involved, accepted the social benefit of Caesar’s rule, and thus legitimized it. Thus, the only answer Jesus’ opponents could give was “Caesar’s.” Not only did the bare facts of the coin itself require this answer, obviously, but it also related to the total dominance over political and economic life throughout the Jewish culture. The coining of money is a symbol of power. The acceptance of that money as common currency is submission on the part of the people to that power. (This does not address the issue of legal tender.) “Is it lawful?” “Why are you asking? You already do it all day every day.” But, also, render “to God the things that are God’s.”
Important here in Jesus’ answer is the verb: “render.” The opponents had worded the question wrongly: Is it lawful to “give” or to “pay”? The word is different. The Pharisees’ word is didomi“give”; Jesus says not “give” but apodidomi “give back” or “pay up.” It is a term used for paying what is due to someone, or what belongs to them to begin with. This was an acknowledgement of several things, all of which would have angered the Jews to have to admit: 1) Caesar owns the coin, it is His; 2) the usage of Caesar’s property to your own benefit implies your debt to him to the extent that you do; and 3) Caesar’s enforcement of the recalling of this money (the tax itself) meant that the Jewish people were not free as they pretended, but under foreign bondage still (a clear implication that God’s judgment was still upon them).
What most commentators miss or ignore here is that Jesus implies a clear argument a fortiori-from the lesser to the greater—if it is true for the lesser case of the man Caesar, how much more true is it for the Greater. If Caesar has authority to demand payment, how much more authority does God have? Instead of this, most commentators see something more of a dichotomy between the two instead of a hierarchy. The State has authority over here, and God has authority over there (your thoughts, emotions, and energies). But this is not the point, for at least two very outstanding reasons: the image and the inscription. These are the two things to which Jesus called attention in regard to the coin. They are both overtly theological concepts….
I think the theological implications of both the image and the inscription would have been obvious to everyone listening. The impact of the lesson would have nearly made the Pharisees a laughingstock among the people. Yet it would have been a stark wake-up call to everyone listening. Yes, the people had something of a legitimate debt to Caesar, but Jesus’ lesson was a far cry from saying that the authority of the State is separate or removed in some way from the authority of God, or that we must wait until the end of time until the State comes under God’s authority and judgment. The lesson here is much more challenging, much more comprehensive. The lesson is, more fully, that all men bear God’s image and God’s inscription. We are all God’s coinage. We all belong wholly to God. All men must “render to God what is God’s.” All men. The Pharisees, Sudducees, the Herods, the masses, and even Caesar himself. Caesar has as much obligation to “render unto God”—bow and submit to God—as everyone else. He as has much obligation to love his neighbors and to obey God’s law as everyone else. He is not a god or a high priest, he is not the source of law and providence; he, like all men, is a man subject to God Almighty’s providence, and God’ Law, and God’s High Priest, Jesus Christ.
Using a fortiori argumentation (from the lesser to the greater) was a common rhetorical method employed by Jesus. Jesus pointed out the greater authority of the Judge in heaven over against the judges on earth. Remember this because this theme of the greater authority of God’s kingdom will take center stage in our next section where we discuss Romans 13 and the kingdom of God. I also want to put special attention on McDurmon’s comments where he notes that the usage of Caesar’s property implied that they were basically enslaved by the Romans. The judgment brought on Israel due to their many violations of the covenant with God will be another theme we will return to in part 3:
They had thus, despite whatever idolatry they judged to be involved, accepted the social benefit of Caesar’s rule, and thus legitimized it. Thus, the only answer Jesus’ opponents could give was “Caesar’s…”1) Caesar owns the coin, it is His…The coining of money is a symbol of power. The acceptance of that money as common currency is submission on the part of the people to that power… 2) the usage of Caesar’s property to your own benefit implies your debt to him to the extent that you do; and 3) Caesar’s enforcement of the recalling of this money (the tax itself) meant that the Jewish people were not free as they pretended, but under foreign bondage still (a clear implication that God’s judgment was still upon them).
At this point, let us just briefly summarize the lesson here: Everybody is obligated to render unto God the things that are God’s. This includes Caesar. And everything is God’s. Jesus turned their attempt to trap Him back onto them by pointing out their idolatry and disobedience. In this way, He actually found a clever way to strongly imply that taxation is theft without actually saying taxation is theft. He skillfully avoided legitimizing Caesar’s authority and taxation over Israel without telling Israel to attempt to avoid paying taxes or violently overthrow their rulers. If Jesus had said to pay your taxes, he would have looked like he was complicit in the unjust occupation of the Romans. Many of his followers did not want to hear this, since they were expecting a Messiah to immediately throw off the rule of their oppressors. If he had told them not to pay their taxes, he could be accused of treason and rebellion against the Roman authorities. The Pharisees would have loved for him to say this because it would have led Jesus into trouble with the Romans.
If we were to paraphrase Jesus’ lesson here, it would look something like the following. “Yes, you have something of an obligation to Caesar because he has temporarily been placed over you by God, and all authorities have been sovereignly put in place by God (John 19:11). Therefore, pay his taxes. It belongs to him, in an earthly, temporal sense. But there is an even greater authority in heaven, and this authority does not exempt Caesar from the moral demands of God’s law. Everything truly and rightfully belongs to Him. (Psalm 24:1, Psalm 50:9-12). Caesar’s tax goes against this greater authority’s moral law. The fact that you even have to pay his tax in the first place is a sign that you are being judged. You are not free, despite what you insist.”
Notice also what question they ask him: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” This is a question about the morality of the action. They were presenting him with a false choice. God can command us to pay our taxes while those taxes can simultaneously be theft. We will talk about this more in Part 3. I bring this up because this is precisely the false choice we are posed by many Reformed and evangelical Christians when hearing that we think all taxation is theft. They point to the Bible’s (particularly, Romans 13) commands to pay our taxes as if this somehow justifies the taxation. Jesus didn’t fall for this lazy exegesis, and neither should we. This was the trap, and Jesus skillfully avoided it by putting the attention squarely on Israel’s disobedience. It was Israel’s disobedient and idolatrous lives that had ironically led to their tax under Rome in the first place. That is what is being focused on here. What is clear is that however you want to interpret Matthew 22, it doesn’t follow that Jesus’ command to pay taxes somehow legitimizes the morality of taxation. Evangelicals make the same mistake with Romans 13. We’ll look at that and examine the nature of the State and its tax in part 3.
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” Matthew 28:18-19