Give what to Caesar?

Written by Jason Barr : September 3, 2008

Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s. — Jesus

If ever there was a part of the Bible that seems tailor-made to affirm our so-called “separation of Church and State”, the relegation of religion into a private sphere while civic life inhabits the public, this would be the one. Indeed, many people with whom I have discussed issues related to faith and radicalism, especially Christianity and anarchism, bring out this text as a “proof” that what we are doing is somehow Biblically inadequate. I would say this is the text most employed for that purpose after Romans 13:1-7. The general popular view seems to be that this text either advocates such a separation as mentioned above, counsels “making nice” with the authorities, or both. When the statement is read in its context, however, this view becomes untenable.

Since this is Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary, which my church follows, I’ll stick to Matthew’s telling of the story.

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away (Matthew 22:15-22, TNIV).

A few things worth noting:

  1. This is a trap. It would have been well-known by this time that, at the very least, a large number of people considered Jesus to be the Messiah or a related figure (the Prophet, etc.), a role which would have carried very specific revolutionary and anti-imperial connotations. We know now that resistance movements against the Romans were, if not a dime a dozen, far from uncommon - and usually dealt with harshly. That is precisely the genius of the trap: If Jesus answers the question in the affirmative, that the tax should be paid, he gives legitimacy to Israel’s status as subject to Rome, and therefore undermines himself in the eyes of the people - in addition to committing an offense under the Mosaic Law (ironic, since the Pharisees were supposedly all about the law). If he answers in the negative, he is guilty of sedition and subject to punishment, likely crucifixion (which, as we all know, is exactly what eventually happened to Jesus).
  2. It was not just disciples of the Pharisees who went to Jesus, but also Herodians, that is to say members of the collaborative government. Far from being simply an internal matter of faith and civic life, this is a confrontation between Jesus and representatives both of his own people (and Pharisees generally had no love for the establishment) and of the imperial oppressors.
  3. The imperial tax in question was levied by Rome only on subject peoples, not on Roman citizens. It was a particularly hated tax, and could ONLY be paid with Roman coin. The temple coin and local currencies were considered worthless for the purpose of paying this tax. Thus the tax not only imposed a burden on subject peoples, but reinforced the image of Roman superiority and of Caesar’s status due to the inscriptions found on the coin.
  4. The question Jesus asks is “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” That is, whose image is on the coin, and to whom does the inscription refer? The question is of monumental importance.

The image and inscription on the coin, as Jesus’ questioner recognizes, are Caesar’s - Tiberius Caesar, the emperor at the time. This much is given in the text explicitly, but what modern readers fail to realize is that it was precisely the image and inscription that caused great offense to the Jews. The image of Caesar would widely have been seen by the Jews to be a violation of the command to “have no graven image”, the second commandment from the Decalogue. As if that was not offensive enough, the inscription to which Jesus refers would have translated as “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus”. Tiberius, son of the god, Augustus. And, of course, if his father was a god, what would that make Tiberius the son? Thus the coin breaches the first commandment as well.

In Jewish eyes this coin was a mockery of and an affront to their most cherished beliefs - that YHWH alone is God, and cannot be imaged by anything created by human hands. It is this very affront that was the reminder of the Jews’ subjugation to the pagan imperial powers - it was not just a “civic” matter, separate from “religious” concerns, but a fundamental challenge to their identity as God’s chosen people. This coin and the tax it was used to pay represented the whole oppressive system that entangled the Jews, and for Jesus to legitimate it would have done more than just undermine his status before the people - it may have set him up for a lynching, particularly since one of the expected tasks of the Messiah was to re-establish Torah as the primary guide for the life of the people and, as mentioned above, paying the tax was technically illegal under the Mosaic law.

This is a prophetic confrontation worthy of being noted with Elijah on Mount Carmel, an encounter with critical implications. Not only did the coin breach the first two commandments of the Decalogue, but on the reverse side it had an inscription referring to peace, the Pax Romana, which everyone knew was enforced by violence and threat, and lauding Tiberius as the Pontifex Maximus, or chief priest of the empire and its subject peoples. The Messiah was the one who was to usher in the reign of God’s peace, the true peace, and also to take on the role of the high priest of God’s people (a belief the author of Hebrews applies to Jesus quite creatively). That is, the Messiah was to be God’s priest-king, combining the roles of David, Melchizidek, and Judah Maccabbee from Jewish lore. The coin essentially claims that for Caesar which was only true of the Messiah - only true of Jesus.

So how does Jesus reply? “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.” In other words, “This coin represents Caesar’s reality, the one you accept by rejecting God’s truth as you have done and obstinately continue to do despite my repeated efforts to call you back to faithfulness (remember that in the next chapter Jesus delivers a scathing rebuke to the Pharisees and chief priests). Give it back to him and do not bother with it any more than you have to - it should be of no consequence to you, but because of your lust for power you entangle yourselves in Caesar’s world. Give it back to him, consider it of no importance. Forget it, and get on with the true reality, the reality God has created and has chosen you for as would-be leaders of his people. Remember God’s will, and do it!”

There is no room for separate spheres of “religious” and “political” in Jesus’ reply. As William Cavanaugh likes to say, scripture says “The earth is the LORD’s, and all that is in it.” If the whole earth belongs to God, then what does that leave for Caesar? The only thing Caesar gets is his own image thrown back in his face, the symbol of his non-reality that cannot stand up to the truth of God’s reign and the coming kingdom.

Jesus’ statement is far from an endorsement either of modern liberal views on religion and the state inhabiting different spheres or of any kind of allegiance given to the imperial powers (nor is it, I believe, primarily about tax resistance, though some forms of tax resistance may be possible applications of the text). Instead, it is fundamentally a challenge to the vision of reality the powers would push upon his people and a call, I believe, for his followers to seek to disentangle themselves from the web of power politics and economics. After all, if we do not have what belongs to Caesar, if our economy is (as much as possible) extracted from the imperial economy, what can we possibly be obligated to give? Jesus’ response to this trap question urges us to enter into the divine imagination to strive to re-conceive our economic and power relations to one another.

What might such an alternate imagination look like, and what sorts of ways of living might be engendered by it? How can such an imagination be birthed and nurtured?

Jason Barr is a musician, writer, and the teaching pastor/worship leader at Ecclesia Christian Church in Evansville, Indiana. He is also the author of the radical Christian blog An Absolution Revolution. He is working on a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies at the University of Southern Indiana.

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Viewing 4 Comments

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    Good article.

    What is rightfully Caesar's? What is rightfully God's? I would side that things fall under the latter category. Hence, my blog title.
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    Father Robert Lyons 1 month ago

    Thanks so very much for your insightful article. I feel like this is something I can share with others to explain a bit more about my faith and convictions.

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    "it is fundamentally a challenge to the vision of reality the powers would push upon his people and a call, I believe, for his followers to seek to disentangle themselves from the web of power politics and economics." Amen. Amen. Amen. Any reality other than that Proclaimed by Jesus to be obviously all around us for all to see, is a lie. Hence my favorite story (outside the Gospel) is "The Emperor's New Clothes." But today our economy is built on factories and workers producing such clothing and other unreal products and laws pushing his people to keep silent in the constant procession of lies. O that our children would say the emperor is naked and not have to die to keep the lie before us.
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    Thorough article. Thanks for making a more interesting review of what does it mean to surrender to Caesar - surrender to God.


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