Render unto Washington?

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : July 18, 2008

You know the story…Jesus is minding his own business, when suddenly the Pharisees try to entrap him with a silly question about taxes. Trying to ensnare Jesus to pick sides between the Romans–who the people hated–and the tax-avoiding Zealots–who the people loved–they ask Jesus “should we pay taxes?”

Jesus, clever God-man that he is, asks to see a coin. He asks “who is on this coin?”

“Caesar,” they reply.

“Well then,” says Jesus. “It must belong to him. So give to Caesar what is his (like taxes, voting, citizenship) but to God what is God’s (like worship, your heart, and 10% of your income).

That is they way that many–if not most–of us have heard this story unpacked. But let’s take a second look, shall we?

Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”

But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

And they were amazed at him. (Mark 12:13-17)

Some Quick and Dirty Interpretation

Many interpreters of this passage assume that it is referring to two separate spheres of obligation. In our relationship with the State, we are to pay taxes (and by extension, to be good citizens); in our relationship to God, we are to offer our spiritual fidelity. This interpretation, it seems to me, is foreign to the text. You see, we come from a time and culture that has a separation of Church and State—a separation of religion from the political order. This sort of separation is a relatively recent innovation.

Richard Horsley asks: “…if Jesus’ questioners and listeners all assumed such a separation of Caesar and God into utterly separate spheres, then how could the question have possibly been part of a strategy to entrap Jesus?”

We must try to hear Jesus’ response through first century Jewish ears, if possible (which is ultimately impossible, but still worthy of an attempt). Remember, we are talking about Jews under the rule of Rome. There was no distinction in the minds of the Jews between the socio-political sphere and the religious sphere—Israel was a theocracy who was occupied by a foreign, pagan, world power.

And so, the Pharisees and Herodians, knowing well that it was indeed UNLAWFUL under Mosaic Law to pay taxes to Rome (especially with idolatrous coins that contained an image of the Emperor). At the same time, however, a refusal to pay taxes would have been understood to be an act of rebellion against Rome. In other words, they had created the perfect trap for this “Jesus.” This man had already upset the established socio-economic-religious order (read Mark 11, where Jesus comes into Jerusalem as a King (political), cleanses the temple (religious and economic), and then implies that his authority comes from heaven (religious). In other words: Jesus is holistic in his subversion!

And so, as a sort of “payback” the Pharisees (who were supposed to be the great spiritual leaders of the people) and Herodians (who were likely a faction that supported the Roman-supported Herodian political dynasty) join forces (even though these two factions should have been political enemies) to trap Jesus. In his response, Jesus avoids the trap by saying “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

While Jesus doesn’t exactly say “we shouldn’t pay taxes to Rome, since to do so would be idolatry,” but it is hard to imagine that the Pharisees and Herodians would have interpreted his words to mean that he supported the Roman government. Instead, it seems to me, given the context, he is saying: “let Caesar have his stupid money…but give to God his due.” Jesus is clearly and simply reasserting the Israelite principle that Caesar, or any other imperial ruler, has no claim on the Israelite people, since God is their actual king and master.

I’m not sure that this passage can at all be used to legimize taxes. As Ellul writes, “The mark on the coin is that of Caesar; it is the mark of his property. Therefore give Caesar this money; it is his. It is not a question of legitimizing taxes! It means that Caesar, having created money, is its master. That’s all. Let us not forget that money, for Jesus, is the domain of Mammon, a satanic domain.”

Making the point even stronger, Ched Myers writes: “There are simply no grounds for assuming (as so many bourgois exegetes do) that Jesus was exhorting his opponents to pay the tax. He is inviting them to act according to their allegiances, stated clearly as opposites. Again Jesus has turned the challenge back upon his antagonists: What position to they take on the issue?”

Myers, who rejects the “two realms” thinking that was born in the Reformation, sees the trap here not between payment or non-payment. Rather, this is a choice between endorsement of Rome or an endorsement of would-be revolutionaries. Jesus’ response as a rejection of both the Roman colonial presence and the revolt.

Render to Washington?

Since (if we agree with Horsley, Myers, and Ellul) that this passage isn’t an encouragement for 1st Century Jews to pay the Imperial Tax, then its usefulness in providing a strong argument for our duty as God’s people to pay taxes to USA is diminished. The question remains: Should we pay taxes or not?

Vernard Eller, who would probably agree with the article up until this point, sees nonpayment of taxes as tax revolt. Instead, letting Caesar keep his accursed money (ie, paying the tax), is the way of honoring the message of this passage, as well as passages like Romans 12.

Ammon Hennacy, however, never paid taxes. “If we pay taxes,” he suggests, “we pay for the bomb.”

Many take a “middle path” by simply refusing to pay the portion of their taxes that pay for the war. Many even include a note expressing their dissent along with their diminished tax check.

Personal Reflections

It is clear that when one reads this passage along with Jesus’ larger teachings about money (we’re to store up treasures in heaven, not earthly treasures), Jesus’ larger teachings about enemies (love your enemy, give to the one who asks, and turn the other cheek), and Paul’s teachings about empire (love your enemy, submit to the authorities), the call to “render to Caesar” cannot be used to reinforce our allegiance to the State. Our relationship to the State, it would seem, is to be one of loving nonviolence. We are to struggle with the Powers, but not flesh and blood.

So then, should we pay taxes?

I’m not sure I am in complete agreement with Eller that tax-avoidance is tax-revolt. I am still inclined to pay my taxes…but only barely. Here are two scenarios that I’m contemplating:

1) Way back in an earlier post, Jordan commented: “If all of us began to stop paying taxes to the military complex, how many CPT workers could we support?” I find the idea of nonpayment of taxes (at least the military portion) compelling…especially if it went to the Christian Peacemaker Teams.

2) What if we could live below a taxable wage? Dorothy Day was a proponent of this. She famously claimed: “If we rendered unto God all the things that belong to God, there would be nothing left for Caesar.” So if we live a life of voluntary poverty, giving all our extra to the poor, we would effectively be free from income tax.

What do you think? Is there any grounds for Christians to engage in tax resistance? Should we simply pay taxes and try to use the American political system to try to get the government to use our taxes righteously? Should we all live below the poverty level so that taxes aren’t an issue?

Mark Van Steenwyk is the editor of He is a Mennonite pastor (Missio Dei in Minneapolis), writer, speaker, and grassroots educator. He lives in South Minneapolis with his wife (Amy), son (Jonas) and some of their friends.

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Viewing 21 Comments

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    “What if we could live below a taxable wage?”

    That’s how I’m doing it. Check out my blog for details and a how-to guide:
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    For those who are pacifists, or at least non-aggressionists: refusing war taxes only addresses part of the picture.

    All government statutes are backed by threat of violence. All taxes support aggression, not just some of them.

    If it is a worthwhile endeavor to fight war taxes, it is a more risky, but perhaps more worthwhile endeavor to fight all of them. Only an individual can make that judgment him or herself, based on the risks involved, and who all it would adversely affect (such as, does he or she have strong community or familial commitments, wherein persecution would endanger them as well, without their consent?)

    As for the discussion above, my understanding is that the people DID have competing taxes at the time. Some went to the Temple, some to the Sword.

    I believe it is telling that Jesus talked about and looked at the image on the coin, as if to show them that they had already accepted the idol.

    Anything and everything belongs to God. None of it is Caesar's (or the Sword's, or Washington's).

    I named my blog after this point.
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    I struggle particularly with the war taxes part -- of course it would only be a symbolic gesture since only part of our spending on violence comes directly out of the Pentagon budget. And how much of our current tax money goes to service the debt of previous wars or military machinery?

    Anyway, I am opposed to refusing all taxes. We have a different situation than the Jews under Roman occupation. We live in a (admittedly flawed) democracy. I do believe we have a civic duty to ante up our fair share for roads, schools, emergency services, etc. Just as a church needs money to operate, so do cities, states and countries.

    If it wasn't for our insane military spending, I would happily pay my taxes as simply my entrance fee to civil society.
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    Most of the money for roads, schools, etc. comes out of state taxes, property taxes, and sales taxes. So, one could still refuse the federal income tax and still, for the most part, be supporting those good things while rejecting much of the tax base that is tied in miliarism....though it certainly isn't as clean and tidy as that.
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    Money for roads, schools, and emergency services could be donated or paid directly, if that is your only roadblock. This is true regardless of whether you donate to voluntary organizations (such as toll roads, private schools, security companies, volunteer fire departments, and the like) or State agencies.

    However, I think there is a more important point. The good Samaritan didn't bypass the man and go to the nearby town, demanding money (under threat of theft, imprisonment, or death) in order to start an agency which would cater to the ill and poor. He did something about it himself.

    That's what we, as Christians, need to return to. Helping our neighbors lovingly, rather than relying on the Sword to inefficiently, corruptly, and violently do it "on our behalf."

    Obviously, we can't get to that point in one single, easy step, and I don't fault anyone who pays taxes, due to the threats behind them. (I pay them myself!)

    What I do think we need to be cognizant of, however, is that any time we ask the State to implement a new restriction or initiate or expand a program, we are advocating it be done violently, rather than voluntarily; we are recommending it be done via the false idol of the Sword, rather than through the guidance of the Peacemaker.
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    Well, here are my 2 cents on this topic...

    I think that Jesus did tell us to pay our taxes in these verses. But, our paying taxes shouldn't be done out of loyalty to the state. We are simply to pay them because we are expected to be good citizens. While witholding the portion of our taxes that go to pay for the military may seem like a revolt, we must remember that Jesus also rejected the revolt. Besides, its not as if the military won't get their money if Mark Van Steenwyk (or anybody else) witholds that portion of their taxes. The military will simply use the portion that was payed.

    Here is what it breaks down to. Everything hinges on what is in your heart. If one does good deeds while holding murderous rage in his heart, that person is guilty of murder. If one pays taxes while rejecting the military might that their government might use, God will know and that person will be guiltless.
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    1. Is it possible (there in USA) to pay taxes only for education, health and other non-militar issues?

    2. I'm in a strange situation: While I hate the concept of state, and thus I could be in the side of the ones who don't pay taxes, I see another approach: the laissez faire version ("I don't want a strong state that makes me pay taxes... I just want the minarchist state to protect my ass while I exploit my workers"). Our duty is find the other way... The Jesus' way
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    I have no quarrel whatever with the person who is convicted that paying taxes is ethically problematic and is willing to go to jail for not paying. For me, however, it seems a strange hill to die on. And I'm not convinced that sales tax, parasitic as it is upon an unjust economic system, is any less problematic.

    Based on my income, I haven't paid any federal tax in years, and we are trying, in fits and starts, to be both more "green" and somewhat "anti-consumer" as a means of living out our ethical ideals. But trying to root out all of our complicity in the present system (which is simply the one we're subject to until the next one), all of our corruption or colonization by the fallen powers, can easily become a legalistic exercise in futility.

    For instance, yesterday morning I got up, brewed some fair-trade/organic coffee, enjoyed the view of our garden, studied an ancient subversive text, checked up via internet on some of my subversive friends -- and then I gassed up my minivan and drove 70 carbon-choked miles to teach a class where, by my very presence, I am probably perpetuating the legacy of white male authority.

    Perhaps by pointing out the image on the coin, Jesus was pointing them back, in a visceral way, to the root problems of empire in general, to the tenuousness of their situation and the complexity of human sinfulness that paying or not paying one's taxes barely touches. Interestingly enough, Jesus does pay the temple tax, albeit by extracting it from a fish, which seems less than helpful as guiding principle. Perhaps, however, his reason for paying the tax -- to avoid undue trouble -- is helpful, and there's always the voluntary poverty implied in the need to seek financial assistance from the local aquafauna.
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    I never seem to be able to say what I want to say adequately. My comments always come, out despite my best efforts to the contrary, sounding blunt and overly simplistic.

    At any rate, thanks Ted, for stating this in a much clearer way than I ever could. I actually think that extracting the temple tax from a fish is a pretty good guiding principle. Maybe next time I'm looking for something to spend my money on I should simply go fishing instead! =)
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    Just a point of clarity: are you equating the Temple tax with the Imperial Tax? Not all taxes are created equal, and his response to one was to pull a coin out of a fish, and his response to the other was to say "give to caesar what is caesar's and to God what is God's"
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    I wasn't trying to equate the two; both have been mentioned, and I didn't take the time to parse them. Since the early Christians were at least as critical of the Herodian temple project as they were the Roman imperial project, I'm not sure by what calculus one would be acceptable while the other would not.

    My point is more along the lines that neither response seems to be an unambiguous declaration pro or con. This could be because Jesus was deliberately being obtuse, in order to point to something beyond the question itself, rejecting the insistence for a simple answer. Or it could be that a passage like this had a much less ambiguous meaning for its early readers -- in which case the more subversive reading makes the most sense (the seemingly more obvious reading of compliance being a screen against confiscation of the document -- or in the case of the event itself, Jesus' premature arrest).

    An instructive, if not conclusive exercise would be to examine the kinds of charges brought against early Christians to see if not paying taxes is among them.
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    I'm a little confused by your argument that there was not a separation of Church and State in 1st century Palestine. The Church was the Temple which had its own money system and its own tax, which was separate from the Roman money and tax. The Church was Jewish. The State was Roman and worshiped the Emperor among a pantheon of gods. So ethnically and religiously they were quite different.

    If Paul teaches to submit to our earthly authorities and our earthly authorities tell us to pay xyz tax, then wouldn't not paying xyz tax be rebellion? Of course, we must obey God before men, but when we don't submit and pay our xyz tax then we usurp the responsibility of the authorities God has placed over us. We will be held accountable for taking that kind of authority. That's a lot of responsibility I don't want to have. I'm not sure I could govern as well as our leaders have.

    Living below the poverty line so as to not paying taxes means that you receive benefits that others paid for. As part of the community of the USA, I would like to pull my own weight. I feel badly when I can't.

    If you truly want to avoid submitting to Mammon, I would suggest living without money altogether. (I'm actually writing a book on the very topic.)
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    Maria I didn't read your comment until after I wrote mine below. I'd be very interested seeing your research on living without money. I'm trying to get there, and I think it's attainable but I'd love to hear your ideas.
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    I don't have a lot of research. A friend of mine put me in touch with a couple of people: Jeffrey Sawyer and Scaughdt D. Mossway These guys aren't committed to living without money, but close. I would recommend a book by Steve Brill called Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not-So-Wild) Places. He has a cookbook (which I have not tried) called The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook. His web site is

    We humans used to live as hunter/gatherers and didn't use any money. Hunter/gatherers found all kinds of resources in the natural world that could meet their needs. To a large extent those resources are still there, you just need to know where to look. And modern society throws away so many things. I think if we were creative there's a lot we could make use of.

    But more than that, I think God's economy is one of generosity. While I don't particularly like prosperity preachers, I think they are right when they say that God gives back to us when we're generous. There really isn't a lot that we absolutely need to have. And if we were to spend our time looking for ways to help others and actually doing it, at the same time refusing monetary payment, I think that we would find that God provided more than we needed, especially if we were trustworthy, faithful, and hard working. And when we get extra, we pass that along to others -it has a way of coming back.

    Even if for some reason there was a season where we didn't get our needs gratified immediately, that wouldn't mean that God wasn't providing. We wouldn't die from some fasting. And God has a way of moving us along to different pastures. Part of depending on God is being able to listen to his leading. Besides this society has a lot of safety nets built in.

    The book I'm writing isn't a how to, it's more inspirational fiction. I hope that helps. Best wishes. I'd love to hear how it goes. mariakirby at ameritech dot net
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    Beyond the issue of paying or not paying taxes, another possible and more far reaching meaning of Jesus' words here may be that we should not use Ceasar's money at all. Notice Jesus doesn't say "Render to Ceasar" what Ceasar demands (the tax), but Render to Ceasar what "is" his. And if the currency by Jesus' implication all belongs to Ceasar due to his inscription than Jesus might be indicating that he (Ceasar) ought to have all of it back. This, in Jesus' classic style, would create a trap for his (probably wealthy) trappers because he would be saying that to be faithful to God one should not be concerned about whether it is lawful to pay taxes, but avoid the problem of taxes altogether by giving all one's money away. That would be a perfect act of nonviolent rebellion, and probably would have stunned Rome and diminished its control over the Jews because much of Roman power in daily life was purchased through the paying off of already respected Jewish authorities with Roman coin. If a large percentage of the population stopped using the Roman coins, their value would have been significantly diminished because of the lower demand and the outright refusal of many to accept it. If this is possibly the meaning Jesus intended, then I wonder how possible it would be in our modern context to abandon the use of money and what that would look like and what sort of cultural impact it would have?

    As a side note, under US tax laws, if you give enough money away, you can avoid all federal taxes. Anyone who wants to legally avoid income tax has this option always available.
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    Luke, for me, this is exactly the point I think Jesus was making. Just get rid of money and problem is removed. I think the image on the coin should be contrasted with the image of God in humanity in general. Money is a means for obtaining objects/power at a distance (space and time) from the people who produced them, creating a veil to obscure the exploitation involved. Without money (and the images it bears) then would be in more direct proximity with the people (and God's image in them) who make the things we use.
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    Getting rid of money just creates other problems and does not prevent/avoid exploitation. I believe that it could be argued that the presence of money actually decreases the incidence of exploitation because there is a standardized means of excha