Jesus and Taxes: The Answers

In the last post we considered five interpretations of Jesus’ “Render to Caesar” statement. The first two are apolitical; the middle one attempts to recognize Jesus’ political character; the last two are clearly political. Now let’s see how likely each is.

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.)

Hengel followed the anachronistic “separation of church and state” line, and like two other Martins of Germany (Luther and Heidegger) was guided by individualist concerns. His interpretation can be rejected out of hand (most scholars recognize it as dated and implausible). The only reason I bothered mentioning it is that laypeople (like Garry Wills) persist with it. Safeguarding our separation of church and state is imperative, but unfortunately we can’t use Jesus to do it. In antiquity “religion”, like “economics”, was embedded in (and inseparable from) the discrete institutions of kinship and politics.

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.)

Funk was always amusing if not persuasive, turning Jesus into an open-minded college professor (like Funk) instead of a prophet who actually took sides on these issues. Jewish prophets weren’t interested in making people think for themselves. They were voices of divine authority, mad at the world, and had clear ideas about things, even if they sometimes had to resort to veiled meanings in order to stay alive. [As for pocketing coins (does Funk want us to laugh with him or at him?), it’s the last thing Jesus would have done; he shunned money like the plague (Mk 6:6b-13/Mt 10:1-15/Lk 9:1-6,10:1-12).] I was a bit surprised at how seriously this option was taken in comments.

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.)

Wright’s apparent affinities for a revolutionary Jesus are an illusion. To suggest that paying taxes amounted to “true” revolutionary behavior is doublespeak, and the idea that tax-evading revolutionaries were the actual compromisers with Rome beggars belief. (In the comments section of the last post, Doug Chaplin noted, “like Wright himself, Wright’s Jesus always manages to have his cake and eat it”.) Most obviously: if the Jewish people kept paying their taxes, Caesar couldn’t care less about whether or not they reserved their divine honors for God. This is exactly the accommodation most of the Jewish people had worked out with the empire already. As with Ball in (3), Wright ends up putting Jesus on the same page with the Pharisees.

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.)

This view is plausible, along with (5) below.

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.)

This view is plausible, along with (4) above.

As I see it, Jesus could have meant either (4) or (5). Each has the advantage of making sense of (a) the charge preserved in Lk 23:2a, or more generally, that Jesus was executed as a political troublemaker; (b) that as a Jewish prophet Jesus naturally opposed idolatry, and couldn’t stomach the accommodations (Pharisaic or otherwise) worked out with the empire; and (c) that he also opposed injustice — taxation by the first century was lethal, with more than one third of the peasantry’s grain and half of their fruits/vegetables going to the Roman land tax (on top of that, the poll tax just added insult to injury, not to mention temple tithes and the half-shekel tax).

I prefer option (4) for the simple reason that it makes better sense of Jesus’ shaming strategy with the denarius coin, and more generally in light of his apocalyptic world-view. Listen to the logic in each case:

Option (4)

Opponents: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”
Jesus: “Whose image and inscription is this?
Opponents: “Caesar’s.”
Jesus: “Then give Caesar back his abominable coins, and give your undivided allegiance to God, so that Caesar and his coins may be removed from God’s land.”

Option (5)

Opponents: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”
Jesus: “Whose image and inscription is this?”
Opponents: “Caesar’s.”
Jesus: “Then Give Caesar nothing, for an idolater doesn’t have a claim on his own property.”

Either sentiment is revolutionary and denies the legitimacy of Caesar’s taxes. But the logic behind (4) is more readily apparent, and squares with the fact that Jesus was apocalyptic rather than insurrectionist. What Jesus advocated doing with Caesar’s coins (according to (4)) is actually the sort of thing we would expect from a millenarian. Leaders of apocalyptic movements often make demands which put people’s well-being at risk, such as asking them to forsake money (or “throw it back in Caesar’s face”) and embrace poverty and hardship (Mk 6:6b-13/Mt 10:5-15/Lk 9:1-6,10:1-12). Jesus advised paying taxes “with contempt” as part of the tribulation-drama preceding God’s triumph over Caesar.


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