Taxes to Caesar
A 1997 Peanuts comic strip of the beloved Snoopy begins in the first frame with Snoopy sitting at his typewriter on top of his kennel. “Dear IRS,” Snoopy starts to write, “I am writing to you to cancel my subscription. Please remove my name from your mailing list.” Taxes are never a fun topic; I have never met an excited person about paying taxes. Without getting into a whole different topic, I will do what I always do, work our way through this passage. We will not be talking about tax policies, percentages, or politics. So, we need to understand this is most likely within the last week of Jesus’ life but could potentially be the final months of this life. The tension grows as the religious leaders are like a pot about to boil over. Both the Herodians and the Pharisees come to trap Jesus in his talk. The word is used in the LXX of a lion trying to capture its lunch (Job 10:16). They realize that there are no actions that Jesus has done that would be enough to convict him. However, they come seeking that he would incriminate himself.
We have noted serval times throughout our study of Mark the inability of the Pharisees to speak or seek the truth. Luke explains in Luke 20 that they came to Jesus as spies, seeking to be sincere. Again, they externally appear upright, but they resort to dishonest means in their dealings with Jesus. However, in the following few verses, they do state observations about Jesus, which show Jesus’ character. When an enemy compliments you while trying to ensnare you, it is a compliment to your character. They remark two things about Jesus; firstly, he is true. They explain that Jesus truly teaches the way of God. Whether they seek to flatter Jesus, they notice that other people do not move him, so why to flatter someone who does not care what people think. Jesus’ teaching right from the start has astonished people with his teaching. Secondly, they comment he does not care about anyone’s opinion or care about appearances. This is quite different from the religious leaders plotting to destroy Jesus but are afraid of the crowd (cf. Mark 11:18, 12:12). Their decision-making process comes down to how the crowd would respond. They are not concerned about truth or justice, but this would look bad if we were to kill Jesus.
They then pose their question to Jesus, hoping to have him trip upon his words. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” Here is the big question. We need to understand that Rome had taken over Israel in 63 BC. They had the Roman senate appoint Herod the Great “king of the Jews” in 40 BC. In about 6 AD, they implemented a census tax. This led to the rise of a movement called the “Zealots,” One of Jesus Disciples was Simon the Zealot (Mark 3:18). The trap they set in this question was depending on how Jesus was to answer, would depend on who would be happy or outraged at the answer. If he were to explain that it is not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, a few soldiers would have likely placed him in prison for treason. On the other hand, if he were to say it is lawful to pay taxes, the crowd, which most likely had many card-carrying zealots, would have disdained Jesus, and therefore the religious leaders would not have any need to fear the crowd.
II. Jesus’ Answer
Jesus does not answer the question immediately, almost to stir up curiosity within the crowd. Jesus asks for someone to bring him a denarius. A small coin which in its own right created division. Many Jews would have considered this coin blasphemous. A normal denarius would have an image of Tiberius crowned with a wreath upon his head. Around the end of the coin was the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti Filius Augustus,” which means, Tiberian Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus.” The coin explains that Augustus was a deity, which is heresy to a monotheist. However, the controversial coin did not stop there. On the opposite side of the coin was the inscription, “Pontifex Maximus,” which means “High Priest.” This all added to the tainted backdrop between the Romans and the Jews. I do not desire to start a lively debate, but it would be as if printed on money from the US treasury the statement, “In gods we trust.”
The question of taxes was not merely an ethical question. Does the government appointed by God have the right to require taxes? This was a general question to create controversial division within the crowd. He asks for this controversial coin. I am sure many people thumbed through their pockets and purses to try and find a denarius. Finally, he breaks the silence and asks the question, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” This is not a trick question. There is but one answer, “Caesar.” Jesus then utters a profound statement, “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”
Simply put, Jesus says, pay your taxes. The Bible is filled with difficult verses. This is one of those verses. Another is like it, we pray that we would be more Christ-like, and Jesus paid taxes (Matt 17:24-27, 22:15-22). The Roman government was certainly not Christian friendly, Paul who the Roman empire would imprison, wrote in Romans 13:1-2, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. There is no authority except God, who has instituted those that exist. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” Quite simply, Jesus says, the coin bears Caesar’s image, then you should pay it to Caesar if he requires.
Just as quickly as Jesus utters the phrase, “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” he adds an additional comment that is like dropping a mic on the original question, “[give] to God the things that are God’s.” They are amazed by this response. The coin is made in the image of Caesar, but man is made in the image of God. He takes their question back to the heart of the matter. The same word used to describe the “likeness” of the controversial coin is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, in Genesis 1:26-27,
“Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
Jesus utters a profound truth that shapes the life of mankind. The Pharisees were concerned about entrapping Jesus in his answer, but in the end, Jesus’ word struck right at the heart of the problem, the human heart. The major issue is not if you pay taxes; Jesus answers that you should. The point is, do you give to God what is due to God? Augustine explains this thought-provoking comment,
“We are God’s money. But we are like coins that have wandered away from the treasury. What was once stamped upon us has been worn down by our wandering. The One who restamps his image upon us is the One who first formed us. He himself seeks his own coin, as Caesar sought his coin. It is in this sense that he says, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” to Caesar his coins, to God your very selves.”
Jesus brings our gaze from the government to God, setting our minds on things above. Mankind bears God’s image, and therefore man is called to give their back to God. When we get caught up in questions such as taxes, we can get caught up in not eternal matters. They are important, but when we fail to look past them, we cannot understand them. Jesus says, ‘give to God what is God’s.” So the question we need to consider is what we should give to God.
a. Give honor and thanks
Paul writes in Romans 1 that man knew about God because God had revealed himself, mainly God’s eternal power and divine nature. However, Paul continues, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (Rom 1:21). Mankind is made by God; we each bear his image; therefore, man is to give thanks to God and honor to God. We are made to worship God. Isaiah writes, “The people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise” (Is 43:21). The multitude in Revelation cry out, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will, they existed and were created” (Rev 4:11). We worship God because he is the one who has made us. He is the one who has given us life. We sing every week, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…” All of our blessings come from God; we might not think that that list would be very long. However, we do not need to be trained to make a list of the things that we lack; our sinful hearts and the world teach us this regularly. However, worship is due to God. As the stanza in amazing grace says, “when we have been there 10,000 bright shining as the sun, with no less days to sing God’s praise, then when we first begun.” Jesus says, give to God what is God’s we should give him praise and honor. Man is made to worship God; you might say this is one thing lost in the garden of Eden and restored in heaven. We pray, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven; worship is found in heaven but absent on earth.
b. Give humble obedience
This passage has a subtle circle of obedience. The first half of Jesus’ quote explains that we are to give Caesar what is Caesar’s. However, even in the second portion of Jesus’ quote, we are called to obedience to God. We do not merely obey Caesar because Caesar says we should, because how would be know who would be the right Caesar to listen to? Yet, we are obedient to Caesar because God has called us to be subject to governing authorities. Paul continues in Romans 13:1, “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Again, Paul writes of the Roman government who would imprison him for his faith. We are called to give obedience to God and his word, which brings us to be subject to civil authorities, which the logic of Paul (while being carried along by the Holy Spirit) wrote,
“For because of this, you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Romans 13:6–7).
To rephrase Paul when he wrote to the Corinthians, whatever you do, whether eating, drinking, or filing taxes, do so for the glory of God. We might not like to pay taxes, but we should be joyous that we are glorifying God by submitting to his word.
c. Give your whole self
All of mankind is to give glory to God; no one is exempt from giving God glory. However, on one level, believers are to give God more honor and glory. We praise God not only as our creator but also as one who has been brought with a price; we have been redeemed. The Heidelberg Catechism beautifully puts it, “I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil…” We have yet another reason to give thanks and praise to God; he is not only our creator but redeemer.
The religious leaders come to Christ to ask about taxes; originally fearful of the crowd, they hoped to set a trap for Jesus that in his answer, the crowd would turn on him or the officials would arrest him. However, in the end, the crowd and the officials do neither. They are left in amazement at Jesus’ response.