This article by By Ryan Burgett was originally published at his website RyanBurgett.com.
“Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” – Matthew 22.21b
People love to use the Bible for their own purposes. This passage is one in particular which gets used quite often when the issue of taxation arises. While there are passages which deal with a Christian’s priorities when it comes to taxation, this is not one of them. So, if this is not a blanket statement legitimizing taxation, then what is it?
Jesus was a threat to the religious establishment of his time. In the previous chapter, we read that:
They wanted to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowds, because the crowds regarded him as a prophet. – Matthew 21.46
Jesus had roared into Jerusalem just days before, driving the lucrative businesses from the temple (Matthew 21.12), claiming to be the fulfillment of prophesy (Matthew 21.16), and sharing parables with the people which strongly condemned the powerful chief priests and elders (Matthew 21.43). They wanted to capture and even kill (John 5.16) Jesus, and they were ready to use whatever means they had at their disposal to do it.
This famous passage begins with, “Then the Pharisees went out and planned together to entrap him with his own words” (Matthew 22.15). Their intentions were clear. They were trying to trap him. They asked:
“Teacher, we know that you are truthful, and teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You do not court anyone’s favor because you show no partiality. Tell us then, what do you think? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Matthew 22.16b-17
This question seems harmless enough to us today, but at that time one’s answer could literally mean life or death. In this situation, Jesus was literally in the temple (Matthew 21.23), surrounded by Jews who despised the Roman rule under which they were held. Jesus had spent his entire ministry sharing truth with these people and many had grown to respect him and his words. If he answered that it is right to pay taxes to Caesar, he would be implicitly legitimizing their oppressive Roman rulers and would be setting himself in fiery opposition to the very people who he was ministering to.
But, the other answer would mean death. The Pharisees were smart, and when they came to question Jesus, they did not come alone. The Pharisees and their followers were opposed to Roman rule, but they brought along a group of Herodians (Matthew 22.16a). The Herodians were a group who supported King Herod (the deputy appointed by the Romans) and in supporting him they also supported Roman rule.
If Jesus responded that it would be wrong to pay taxes to Caesar, then these Herodians would seize him and have him arrested by the Romans. There were at that time, many people advocating against the Roman occupation of Israel, and some of them even took part in violent insurrections. The Romans were long past being lenient on revolutionaries and telling people that they should not pay their taxes was seen as a revolutionary act.
So, what could Jesus say? If he answered one way, he would infuriate and alienate the people he was ministering to (and, technically since he was in the temple where they Jews had a lawful right to execute blasphemers, if they construed his words to be blasphemy then they could potentially stone him to death). If he answered the other way, then he would be immediately arrested and likely face execution at the hand of the Romans.
Thankfully, Jesus recognized their “evil intentions” (Matthew 22.18a) and rather than give a simple yes or no to their question, he asked to see a denarius, the kind of coin used to pay the tax. Then he asked them:
“Whose image is this, and whose inscription?” Matthew 22.20
They told him, “Caesar.” He responded by saying:
“Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Matthew 22.21b
This was a brilliant response, and “when they heard this they were stunned, and they left him and went away” (Matthew 22.22). Rather than drag Jesus away to jail, they left him alone.
So, what really was Jesus saying here? What was so brilliant about it? What about it caused his opposition to be stunned and give up? All it takes is a little bit of thought to figure it out. He said to give Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to give God the things that are God’s.
By telling them to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, Jesus forced them to ask themselves, “What is Caesar’s?” The people who were trying to trap Jesus had differing opinions on this. The followers of the Pharisees did not feel that Caesar had any right to their land or their money, meanwhile the Herodians did feel that Rome was their legitimate ruler and deserved both obedience and taxes. By forcing them to ask themselves what belonged to Caesar, Jesus successfully brought to the surface a disagreement which had sharply divided the Pharisees from the Herodians for countless years. Whatever truce they had made in their zeal to destroy Jesus was gone.
Now, while the first part of Jesus’ answer successfully drove a wedge between those who were attacking him, the second part of his answer really drove home the bigger picture, one which both the Pharisees and the Herodians likely had not taken into account. Jesus told them to give to God the things that are God’s, which forced them to ask the question, “What is God’s?”
What is God’s? Any good Jew at that time would give the same answer as any good Christian today. Everything is God’s. God created this world and everybody in it. We exist because of God’s own creativity and love. More than any other question, this was the one they should have been asking each other. What do they owe to God? What does he want from them? Those questions needed to be answered before they could even begin to answer the question about Caesar. Sure, the denarius had a picture of Caesar on it, but the metal itself was from God.
The reason the followers of the Pharisees and the Herodians were stunned and left was because they didn’t have answers to these questions. Jesus had successfully turned the tables on them, and confounded them.
This is a fantastic passage about life and about priorities. Jesus was not interested in legitimizing or delegitimizing taxation here, and anyone who tries to use this passage for that purpose today is no better than the Pharisees or the Herodians. Jesus forced them to rethink their priorities and reflect on God. When we read this passage, we should do the same.
What–if anything–do we owe to Caesar, or to the government? That is an important question which has significant implications in our lives today. But even more importantly, What does it mean for you and me to give to God what is God’s? That is the real question which needs to be answered. If you can honestly answer that, then you are ready to begin figuring out the answer to the other question.