Pay Caesar!

The Gospel reading at mass this morning was the story of the tribute coin.  In his homily, our priest used the standard interpretation of this story: Jesus endorses paying to Caesar all the taxes that Caesar says are due, and, by extension, Jesus instructs us to pay our taxes as good Christians.  In Matthew 22, Scripture says the Pharisees (with Herodian witnesses) wanted to trap Jesus with the question, “Master … is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”  Where is the trap?

We have a strong hint in tradition.  If Jesus said it was permissible to pay the taxes, he would risk alienating his followers.  If he said it was not permissible, then he would be guilty of sedition, with the Herodians as reliable witnesses.  This choice implies some sort of problem in paying the taxes.  Some translations even say “… Is it legal …”  Well it was certainly legal under Roman and Herodian law.  The trap was that it was illegal under Jewish, or Mosaic Law.  Taxes in general were illegal, and paying a tribute or a tax to a foreign potentate an even more flagrant illegality under Mosaic Law.

denarius

Under Mosaic Law, the tithe took care of all community needs, both sacred and secular.  The tithe provided for the religious needs of the nation as well as those we would today call civil.  And the tithe was owed to God as rent for the bountiful land that he made and still legally owned.  So the tithe, properly set up, was not a choice, it was a legal tenant/landlord obligation.

So when Jesus said (paraphrasing now) “Pay Caesar what you owe him and  also pay God what God is owed,” He slipped through the trap.  The Pharisees and Jesus’ followers all knew what he meant: You owe Caesar – nothing!  And you owe God the tithe, the rent of his land, which takes care of, among other things, all the civil needs that Caesar purports to provide.

Render to Caesar

The ending of the story puts a neat bow on the package: the Pharisees “were unable to catch him out in anything he had to say in public; they were amazed at his answer and silenced.” (Luke 20:26)

Certainly this would not have been their reaction if Jesus had just endorsed the Roman tax system.  Jesus did not instruct us to pay our taxes.  If we want to pay them, fine.  If we feel coerced to pay them, fine.  But Jesus did not endorse paying them.

God did set up a system that works very well, if we would only pay attention to it and let it guide us.

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About root

By day, I am a Financial Advisor with a major securities firm. Otherwise I am a husband and father of four. And I do a bit of writing. This site is dedicated to the promotion of my book, The Other Law of Moses, and discussions around its main points.

4 thoughts on “Pay Caesar!

  1. An excellent, eloquent and concise explanation of this passage! This is the obvious explanation, as I have always struggled to explain to Caesar-loving fellow believers. I apply similar reasoning to Rom. 13, where Paul tells believers to “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor.” His readers could easily figure out what he meant, especially when they knew such scriptures as Haggai 3:8 (“The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, saith the LORD of hosts”) and Ps 50:10 (“For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills”).

    • David, thank you for your comment. As you can probably see, the site is still under some construction, but it is gratifying to see a few reactions anyway. The “Pay Caesar!” post is derived from the book. Give it a read. From what you wrote, I think you’ll like it. Take care.

  2. A very interesting Biblical commentary. You have taken a common quote and taken it to a much deeper level than most pew-sitters have probably ever heard. I am impressed with your erudite Biblical prospective and insight to the way Jesus’ rational mind worked when confronted with a dilemma or a devious trap. Keep up the good work.

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