"Render unto Caesar…" is the beginning of a phrase attributed to Jesus in the synoptic gospels which reads in full, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (“Ἀπόδοτε οὖν τὰ Καίσαρος Καίσαρι καὶ τὰ τοῦ Θεοῦ τῷ Θεῷ”) (Matthew 22:21).
This phrase has become a widely quoted summary of the relationship between Christianity and secular authority. The original message, coming in response to a question of whether it was lawful for Jews to pay taxes to Caesar, gives rise to multiple possible interpretations about whether it is desirable for the Christian to submit to earthly authority. Interpretations include the belief that it is good and appropriate to submit to the State when asked, that spiritual demands supersede earthly demands but do not abolish them, or that the demands of the state are non-negotiable.
The accounts in Matthew and Mark say that the questioners were Pharisees and Herodians (Luke says only that they were “spies” sent by “teachers of the law and the chief priests”).
The inscription on this coin reads “Ti[berivs] Caesar Divi Avg[vsti] F[ilivs] Avgvstvs” or “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus.” To Jesus, this was blasphemous: the coin claims that Augustus was a god.
Although the events in the parable took place well into the reign of Tiberius, it is also possible that an older coin still in circulation but featuring Augustus would have been used in the circumstances described.
It is perhaps significant that Jesus did not have such a coin with him but that one of his questioners did.
The tax denoted in the text was a specific tax… It was a poll tax, a tax instituted in A.D. 6. A census taken at that time (cf. Lk. 2:2) to determine the resources of the Jews provoked the wrath of the country. Judas of Galilee led a revolt (Acts 5:37) which was suppressed only with some difficulty. Many scholars date the origin of the Zealot party and movement to this incident.The Jewish Encyclopedia says, of the Zealots:
When, in the year 5, Judas of Gamala in Galilee started his organized opposition to Rome, he was joined by one of the leaders of the Pharisees, R. Zadok, a disciple of Shammai and one of the fiery patriots and popular heroes who lived to witness the tragic end of Jerusalem…. The taking of the census by Quirinus, the Roman procurator, for the purpose of taxation was regarded as a sign of Roman enslavement; and the Zealots’ call for stubborn resistance to the oppressor was responded to enthusiastically.
Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ/Messiah, a king.” (Luke 23:1-4)
One of the theses of an essay by Ned Netterville entitled, Jesus of Nazareth, Illegal-Tax Protester, is that the principal reason why Pilate crucifed Jesus was for his opposition to Rome's taxes. Evidence of Jesus' guilt could have been presented showing he had interfered with Rome’s collection of taxes by calling Matthew (a.k.a. Levi) away from his tax booth in the midst of his duties (). Pilate may have known or could have been told that Jesus had induced one of his chief tax collectors, Zacchaeus, to repent and resign his leading position in a Roman territory where Pilate was personally responsible for tax collections (). Evidence could have been introduced showing that Jesus spoke disparagingly of tax collectors on several occasions even likening tax collectors to prostitutes (). Jesus was known to enjoy the company of tax collectors, for instance at dinners in the homes of Matthew and Zacchaeus, so he may have influenced others to quit their profession to follow him. Jesus showed compassion for tax collectors as he did to other notorious sinners such as prostitutes without condoning their occupation.
The gospels say that when Jesus gave his response, his interrogators “marvelled, and left him, and went their way.” They were unsuccessful in getting Jesus to unambiguously come out either in favor of paying the tribute to Rome or in favor of tax resistance. Advocates for either argument could interpret his words in either way.
Time has not resolved this ambiguity, and people continue to interpret this passage to support positions that are poles apart.
Jesus can be interpreted to be saying that his religious teachings were separate from earthly political activity. This reading finds support in John 18:36, where Jesus responds to Pontius Pilate about the nature of his kingdom, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” This reflects a traditional division in Christian thought by which state and church have separate spheres of influence.
Others read this passage to suggest that Jesus wanted his followers to be very careful in determining where God and Caesar came into conflict so as to be able to discriminate appropriately between what they owe to one and to the other — the very opposite of an aloof, apolitical stand, and one which was exemplified by the persecuted apostles in Acts 5, when they said in reference to teaching about Jesus, “We ought to obey God rather than men.”
In this interpretation, Jesus asked his interrogators to produce a coin in order to demonstrate to them that by using his coinage they had already admitted the de facto rule of the emperor, and that therefore they should submit to that rule.
One Mennonite explained why he was not a war tax resister thusly:
We are against war and do not wish to aid the war effort by conscription or by paying war taxes to the government. Doing so only helps to strengthen and perpetuate the war machine. Matthew 22:21 Jesus said “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” Romans 13:1 “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God and those which exist are established by God.” ¶ If the law of the land is that everyone must pay war taxes then that is what we must do. It is the law! We should however, work and pray extremely hard to change the law. The ideal situation would be to have the law abolished. The alternative would be to have a choice of designating our portion of the war tax towards efforts of peacemaking. This route would be a more lawful, constructive and positive effort.
Mennonite pastor John K. Stoner spoke for those who interpret the parable as permitting or even encouraging tax resistance: “We are war tax resisters because we have discovered some doubt as to what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God, and have decided to give the benefit of the doubt to God.”
Tertullian, in De Idololatria, interprets Jesus as saying to render “the image of Caesar, which is on the coin, to Caesar, and the image of God, which is on man, to God; so as to render to Caesar indeed money, to God yourself. Otherwise, what will be God’s, if all things are Caesar’s?”
Leo Tolstoy wrote: “Not only the complete misunderstanding of Christ’s teaching, but also a complete unwillingness to understand it could have admitted that striking misinterpretation, according to which the words, ‘To Cæsar the things which are Cæsar’s,’ signify the necessity of obeying Cæsar. In the first place, there is no mention there of obedience; in the second place, if Christ recognized the obligatoriness of paying tribute, and so of obedience, He would have said directly, ‘Yes, it should be paid;’ but He says, ‘Give to Cæsar what is his, that is, the money, and give your life to God,’ and with these latter words He not only does not encourage any obedience to power, but, on the contrary, points out that in everything which belongs to God it is not right to obey Cæsar.”
Christ answered the Herodians according to their condition. “Show me the tribute-money,” said he; — and one took a penny out of his pocket; — If you use money which has the image of Caesar on it, and which he has made current and valuable, that is, if you are men of the State, and gladly enjoy the advantages of Caesar’s government, then pay him back some of his own when he demands it; “Render therefore to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God those things which are God’s” — leaving them no wiser than before as to which was which; for they did not wish to know.Mennonite Dale Glass-Hess wrote:
It is inconceivable to me that Jesus would teach that some spheres of human activity lie outside the authority of God. Are we to heed Caesar when he says to go to war or support war-making when Jesus says in other places that we shall not kill? No! My perception of this incident is that Jesus does not answer the question about the morality of paying taxes to Caesar, but that he throws it back on the people to decide. When the Jews produce a denarius at Jesus’ request, they demonstrate that they are already doing business with Caesar on Caesar’s terms. I read Jesus’ statement, "Give to Caesar…" as meaning “Have you incurred a debt in regard to Caesar! Then you better pay it off.” The Jews had already compromised themselves. Likewise for us: we may refuse to serve Caesar as soldiers and even try to resist paying for Caesar’s army. But the fact is that by our lifestyles we’ve run up a debt with Caesar, who has felt constrained to defend the interests that support our lifestyles. Now he wants paid back, and it’s a little late to say that we don’t owe anything. We’ve already compromised ourselves. If we’re going to play Caesar’s games, then we should expect to have to pay for the pleasure of their enjoyment. But if we are determined to avoid those games, then we should be able to avoid paying for them.Mohandas K. Gandhi shared this perspective. He wrote:
Jesus evaded the direct question put to him because it was a trap. He was in no way bound to answer it. He therefore asked to see the coin for taxes. And then said with withering scorn, “How can you who traffic in Caesar’s coins and thus receive what to you are benefits of Caesar’s rule refuse to pay taxes?” Jesus’s whole preaching and practice point unmistakably to noncooperation, which necessarily includes nonpayment of taxes.
In another incident (Matthew 21:23-27, Luke 20:1-8, Mark 11:27-33), Jesus reverses the roles — putting his critics between the horns of a dilemma when he asks “John’s baptism — was it from heaven, or from men?”:
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ all the people will stone us, because they are persuaded that John was a prophet.” So they answered, “We don’t know where it was from.”
Perhaps the incident with Caesar’s coin is merely meant to highlight Jesus’s superior debate skills, not what position Jesus had on taxation or on the proper relationship of people to their conquerors.
Having this as an additional purpose would not be inconsistent with any of the other purposes proposed.
Around 1715, a pseudonymous author, "Philalethes," published a pamphlet entitled Tribute to Cæsar, How paid by the Best Christians... in which he argued that while Christians must pay "general" taxes, a tax that is explicitly for war purposes is the equivalent to an offering on an altar to a pagan god, and this is forbidden.
In 1761, Joshua Evans put it this way:
Others would term it stubbornness in me, or contrary to the doctrine of Christ, concerning rendering to Caesar his due. But as I endeavored to keep my mind in a state of humble quietude, I was favored to see through such groundless arguments; there being nothing on the subject of war, or favorable to it, to be found in that text. Although I have been willing to pay my money for the use of civil government, when legally called for; yet have I felt restrained by a conscientious motive, from paying towards the expense of killing men, women and children, or laying towns and countries waste.
In 1780, Sameul Allinson circulated a letter on the subject of tax resistance in which he insisted that what was due to Caesar was only that which Caesar would not use for antichristian purposes:
...the question put to our Savior on the point was with evil intention to ensnare and render him culpable to one of the great parties or sects then existing, who differed about the payment of taxes, his answer, though conclusive, was so wisely framed that it left them still in doubt, what things belonged to Cæsar and what to God, thus he avoided giving either of them offence which he must inevitably have done by a determination that tribute indefinitely was due to Cæsar. Our first and principle obedience is due to the Almighty, even in contradiction to man, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Hence, if tribute is demanded for a use that is antichristian, it seems right for every Christian to deny it, for Cæsar can have no title to that which opposes the Lord’s command.
In 1862, Joshua Maule wrote that he felt that the "Render unto Caesar" instruction was compatible with war tax resistance, as there was no reason to believe for certain that the tax referred to in that episode had any connection to war:
The words of Christ, “Render to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” have often been brought forward as evidence that He approved of paying all taxes; it being said, in connection, that Cæsar was then engaged in war. The distinction, however, is sufficiently clear: the things that were Cæsar’s were, doubtless, those which appertain to the civil government; the things which belong to God are, surely, a clear and full obedience to His commands and to His laws. We know that all the precepts and commands of Christ which can be applied in reference to this subject are of one tendency, enjoining “peace on earth and good-will to men.” We do not know, after all, however, what was the exact nature and use of the tribute collected in those days, nor what were the situation and circumstances in which Christians or others were then placed in regard to such things.
Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement put it this way: “If we rendered unto God all the things that belong to God, there would be nothing left for Caesar.” She also advocated a life of voluntary poverty by saying “the less you have of Caesar’s, the less you have to give to Caesar.”
Ammon Hennacy was on trial for civil disobedience and was asked by the judge to reconcile his tax resistance with Jesus’s instructions. “I told him Caesar was getting too much around here and some one had to stand up for God.” Elsewhere, he interpreted the story in this way:
[Jesus] was asked if He believed in paying taxes to Caesar. In those days different districts had different money and the Jews had to change their money into that of Rome, so Jesus asked, not for a Jewish coin, but for a coin with which tribute was paid, saying “Why tempt me?” Looking at the coin He asked whose image and superscription was there inscribed and was told that it was Caesar’s. Those who tried to trick Him knew that if He said that taxes were to be paid to Caesar He would be attacked by the mobs who hated Caesar, and if He refused to pay taxes there would always be some traitor to turn Him in. His mission was not to fight Caesar as Barabbas had done, but it was to chase the moneychangers out of the Temple and to establish His own Church. Whether He winked as much as to say that any good Jew knew that Caesar did not deserve a thing as He said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s,” or not, no one knows.
…Despite what anyone says each of us has to decide for himself whether to put the emphasis upon pleasing Caesar or pleasing God. We may vary in our reasons for drawing the line here or there as to how much we render unto Caesar. I make my decision when I remember that Christ said to the woman caught in sin, “Let him without sin first cast a stone at her.” I remember His “Forgive seventy times seven,” which means no Caesar at all with his courts, prisons and war.
|King James Version of the Bible:||Matthew 22:15-22||Mark 12:13-17||Luke 20:20-26|
|New International Version:||Matthew 22:15-22||Mark 12:13-17||Luke 20:20-26|
The extracanonical Gospel of Thomas also has a version, which reads in the Scholar's Version 100:
They showed Jesus a gold coin and said to him, “The Roman emperor’s people demand taxes from us.” He said to them, “Give the emperor what belongs to the emperor, give God what belongs to God, and give me what is mine.”
The fragmentary Egerton Gospel in the Scholar’s Version translation (found in The Complete Gospels) 3:1-6 reads:
They come to him and interrogate him as a way of putting him to the test. They ask, “Teacher, Jesus, we know that you are [from God], since the things you do put you above all the prophets. Tell us, then, is it permissible to pay to rulers what is due them? Should we pay them or not?” Jesus knew what they were up to, and became indignant. Then he said to them, “Why do you pay me lip service as a teacher, but not [do] what I say? How accurately Isaiah prophesied about you when he said, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart stays far away from me; their worship of me is empty, [because they insist on teachings that are human] commandments […]’”
Catholic answers.('A Nation for All: How the Catholic Vision of the Common Good Can Save America from the Politics of Division', 'Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life')(Book review)
Oct 24, 2008; Render unto Caesar Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life Charles J. Chaput Doubleday, $21.95, 272...