Are there times when your loyalty to Jesus is in conflict with your duty as a citizen? With the demands of your employer? With your duties to your family? Pray for wisdom.
Paying taxes to Caesar
20 Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor. 21 So the spies questioned him: ‘Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. 22 Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’
23 He saw through their duplicity and said to them, 24 ‘Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?’
‘Caesar’s,’ they replied.
25 He said to them, ‘Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’
26 They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent.
Entrapment is the name of the game here. Aware of the adulation of the crowds, there’s little opportunity for the authorities to seize Jesus openly. Perhaps he can be made to look stupid or disloyal to Caesar?
Emperor worship was widespread – reinforced everywhere with inscriptions, images, statues, altars and, of course, coins. Technically it was illegal for a Jew to carry a coin since it was a graven image of a ‘god’, although it didn’t stop them (v 23)!
Taxation of the Jews was crippling – Roman historian Tacitus called it onerous. Most people in the Roman Empire lived in some degree of poverty, so that a minority could flourish. Yet if Jesus recommends deliberate disobedience by withholding taxes, there will be military action against an already suffering people. His answer is simple: if you use Caesar’s coins, pay what you owe – and the same applies to God (v 25).
At its heart, this incident is again about authority. In Luke 20:2 Jesus is challenged about the authority on which he himself acts and speaks. Here, it’s an outright contest between him and the authority of Rome.
Pray for government leaders to exercise both justice and mercy, particularly in the matter of taxation. Pray for anyone known to you who works in national or local government, or is involved in deciding or implementing fiscal policies.
Deeper Bible study
‘Live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love your fellow-believers, fear God, honour the emperor.’1
We must read this passage knowing that at that time brutal dictators like Tiberius Caesar held sway. Formerly a celebrated general extending Roman rule, he was now deeply troubled, unleashing violence against his political enemies. Israel’s leaders also participated in such politics, using spying, duplicitous ‘sincerity’ and flattery to trap Jesus after his exposing parable.2 Sadly, such politics, repugnant to God, are typical in our world and church.
In asking Jesus if paying taxes to Caesar is lawful, they know that a simple ‘no’ will expose him to the charge of sedition. A ‘yes’ could lose him popular, nationalistic support. Wisdom-made-Flesh read them like a book. Their production of a denarius at Jesus’ bidding subtly meant they had yielded to his authority. Moreover, it demonstrated their complicity with Rome and its money. The coin probably bore an image of Tiberius’ head and the words: ‘Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of divine Augustus’.3
Jesus’ words ‘render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’ (v 25, ESV), establishes the principle that Christians are to recognise the state’s authority and pay taxes.4 Nevertheless, they must also recognise God’s absolute authority and render to him what is his: everything! These leaders render to Caesar but not to God. Our challenge is to give ultimate allegiance to God yet submit to the state. There is a time to resist, non-violently, the state’s demands.5 Yet, strikingly, Jesus, Paul and Peter all endorse submission, even to brutal Roman dictators. More profoundly, they call us to challenge Caesar from the bottom up: God’s rule penetrating the world’s kingdoms, like salt and yeast. Whatever the political scene, we are to take up the challenge Jesus gives here with all the wisdom he demonstrates in this encounter.
Consider what we are to render to God. Holding that thought, what does it mean to render to Caesar? Read 1 Tim 2:1 and 2 – and pray.
Bible in a year
Read the Bible in a year: Hosea 7,8; Psalms 137,138
Pray for Scripture Union
This week, all of the Scripture Union prayers relate to this article.
Give thanks to God for giving Lucy the vision for Rooted, and enabling her and the SU team to develop the programme.