Jesus was crucified by the Romans as a messianic claimant, “King of the Judeans”, and the gospel of Luke preserves a charge that he opposed paying taxes to Caesar (Lk. 23:2a). But for centuries Christians have maintained that Jesus condoned paying tribute, and the passage of Mk. 12:13-17/Mt. 22:15-22/Lk. 20:20-26 couldn’t be clearer. When asked by a group of Herodians and Pharisees whether or not it was lawful to pay taxes, Jesus replied: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” But this answer isn’t clear at all, for it begs the question. Just what is Caesar’s? What is God’s? And even if one should give Caesar tribute, does that mean he has the right to demand it in the first place?
Here’s the survey of scholarly opinion. On a sliding scale, (1) is the strongest “yes”, (5) the strongest “no”, in answer to the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”
Jesus’ answer, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”, was…
1. A distinction between religion and politics, implying that Caesar’s taxes were lawful and should be paid. Jesus wasn’t trying to liberate the promised land but to transform the individual heart. And while he opposed exploitation of the poor, he identified the problem not in sociopolitical structures but in individuals. (Martin Hengel, Victory over Violence, pp 1, 47-48.)
2. An enigma which deliberately left the issue unresolved. Jesus had fun teasing people’s minds and making them think for themselves. He wanted people to decide on their own if Caesar and God were compatible. On top of this, he “probably slipped the coin into his purse while they were haggling over what he told them.” (Robert Funk, The Five Gospels, pp 102, 236, 379, 526.)
3. A paradoxical command to revolt and pay taxes at the same time. Jesus was protesting both against Caesar as a false lord and against tax-evading revolutionaries. His punchline meant: “Pay back Caesar as he deserves, and give God the divine honor claimed blasphemously by Caesar.” In so doing he was implying that tax-evading revolutionaries were the true compromisers with Rome. (N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, pp 502-507.)
4. A veiled way of saying that Caesar’s taxes were unlawful but should be paid “with contempt” in order to rid the land of idolatry. Jesus’ punchline meant: “Give Caesar back his filthy coins, and give your undivided allegiance to God, so that Caesar and his coins may be removed from God’s land.” People should throw money back in Caesar’s face, so to speak, and pay their taxes as an act of resistance. But Caesar had no valid claim to taxing people, even if he was entitled to his blasphemous currency. (William Herzog, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, pp 225-232. R. David Kaylor, Jesus the Prophet, pp 63-68.)
5. A veiled way of saying that Caesar’s taxes were unlawful and should not be paid. Jesus’ punchline meant: “Give Caesar nothing, God everything.” Jesus believed no one could serve two masters at the same time (Mt. 6:24/Lk. 16:13) and followed the early Israelite tradition that since God was king, no one else could be (Judg. 8:22-23; I Sam 8:4-7; Hos. 8:4). Jesus’ question, “Whose image and inscription is this?”, was a ploy targeting the possession of something idolatrous rather than what actually belonged to Caesar. (Richard Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, pp 306-317. Richard Rohrbaugh, email correspondence.)
Which of the above interpretations is most plausible? Leave your vote in the comments section if you wish, and in the next post we’ll examine the likelihood of each.