21 They questioned Him, saying, “Teacher, we know that You speak and teach correctly, and You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth. 22 Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”
Yesterday, we ended with the priests employing agents to go and question Jesus before the crowds with the intent of getting Him to say something actionable by the Roman authorities. Here is the result of their plan. They ask a question about taxation.
Now, this doesn’t seem particularly controversial to us. Well… I guess it would be to some folks, but it was a lot more divisive in 1st Century Israel. The Romans weren’t exactly lax or freedom loving hippies with their territories, but they did offer them a lot more freedoms to conquered territories, such as keeping their customs and religion (if it was state approved) and having a form of input into their own governance, at least compared to previous empires. With the caveat that you recognized Roman authority, didn’t take up arms against Rome, and you paid your taxes. If you didn’t, they cracked down harshly and with little mercy.
The Jews chaffed under foreign occupation (as most occupied people do) and there was a nationalist sentiment that was heavily tied into Messianic expectations. They wanted their freedom and they believed that the Messiah would lead them to freedom and dominance over the rest of the world. So taxes were a particularly noxious reminder of their conquered status. And, you know, no one really likes paying their taxes.
So the dilemma they put to Jesus in this simple question is that if He affirms that Jews should follow the Roman laws and pay their taxes, then the nationalists and the majority who believed in a conquering Messiah would abandon Him and Christ would be marginalized as a collaborator and traitor.
If Jesus told them that it was unlawful to pay taxes, then they could report Him to Pilate as a dangerous leader of sedition against Rome who encouraged the people to rebel and stop paying their taxes. Jesus would likely be killed by Rome and the priests would have clean hands in the matter.
23 But He detected their trickery and said to them, 24 “Show Me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” 25 And He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 26 And they were unable to catch Him in a saying in the presence of the people; and being amazed at His answer, they became silent.
Jesus calmly asks for a coin. The denarius was the common coin of the day. It was a day’s wage for a laborer. He asks them whose image it has on it. This particular one had an image of Caesar on it. His answer is to give to Caesar the things that are his and give to God the things that are His.
The Christian is a dual citizen, a member of two countries. One is the country of his birth. The other, the kingdom of his second birth. We have obligations to each. To the State we have obligations to follow the law, pay our taxes, work to leave her in a better condition for our children, and to lay down our lives to defend her if need be. She has a claim on our temporal things.
To our Lord, we owe chief obedience, we owe philanthropy, we owe Charity to others, we owe forgiveness to others as we have been forgiven, we owe empathy and kindness to our fellow man, we owe our praise, we owe our minds (focused on the things that He is focused on), we owe our lives if called to give them, because He has given us eternal life. We owe Him the things that matter the most.
Taxes aren’t theft. They’re trivial in comparison to what will last.
So yeah, on April 15th and every couple of years in November, we can complain about taxes. We can debate how much they should be, we can fight with each other over who should be elected to what job, but ultimately, guys, taxes aren’t going to matter when we’re dead. No one who gets to heaven is going to rejoice because they successfully fought to have capital gains taxes at 15% instead of 25%. All that money will be gone. Inaccessible to you and I. But the important things, the people we’ve loved as God loved, will remain.
Pay your taxes, fulfill your obligations to Caesar. But more importantly love God and love your neighbor as yourself.