Give Unto Caesar

Having recently come through tax time, I thought a few Biblical considerations about taxes and such might be appropriate. 

Jesus’ words, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”, have been quoted many times to document the Master’s instructions as pertaining to a believer’s financial responsibility to his government as well as to God. The illuminating context of this statement, however, is usually ignored.

Jesus was not sitting on a hillside teaching his disciples about their responsibilities to their government. He was responding to men who were endeavoring to trap him in his words, men who were trying to get him to say something for which they could accuse him. His response was not a teaching; it was merely evasive, and his words were very different from what he taught one of his disciples behind closed doors.

Let’s take a look at the context of Jesus’ statement above before going on to the other record of Jesus’ remarks about taxes.

Matthew 22:

15 Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk.

16 And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men.

17 Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?

18 But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites?

19 Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny.

20 And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription?

21 They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.

22 When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.

Jesus was being confronted by two different groups of men who had two different sets of beliefs but were conspiring together to get Jesus. The disciples of the Pharisees ascribed to the doctrine of the Pharisees including their strict intrusive rules about tithing. The Herodians were Herod’s partisans. They were far more interested in not allowing anything to detract from Herod’s activities on Caesar’s behalf, including collection of taxes. The two groups together posed a question to Jesus that was unanswerable without giving one group or the other ammunition to accuse Jesus, or so they thought. Had Jesus given a direct response, he would have been attacked no matter what the response was.

Jesus recognized their wickedness and avoided the confrontation. His response was essentially a non-response, a line that could be interpreted just about any way. He didn’t even so much as specifically admit to owing either party anything; just give to Caesar what is his and to God what is His. This was an avoidance of the confrontation, not a teaching.

Let’s look at Jesus’ other remarks on paying taxes. The record is in Matthew 17:

24 And when they were come to Capernaum, they that received tribute money came to Peter, and said, Doth not your master pay tribute?

25 He saith, Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented [preceded, anticipated] him, saying, What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers?

The record does not say why Peter said yes, but the context indicates that Peter did not actually know the answer to the question. Once they were in the house (and could thus speak privately), Jesus did not wait for Peter to ask him about it, he anticipated Peter’s question and spoke to him about the situation. The kings of Biblical times (especially the Roman emperor) generally made a practice of conquering other lands and extracting their wealth to supply the king’s desires and the needs of the kingdom’s domestic citizens. Peter, knowing this responded with, “of strangers”, to Jesus’ question, whereupon Jesus drew a parallel between the “children” of the kings of the earth being free and the situation with his and Peter’s tax responsibility.

26 Peter saith unto him, Of strangers. Jesus saith unto him, Then are the children free.

Jesus’ next statement also shows that he recognized no responsibility to pay the tax collectors. He did not, however, want to be in the fight so he instructed Peter what to do to keep from offending them.

27 Notwithstanding, lest we should offend them, go thou to the sea, and cast an hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money: that take, and give unto them for me and thee.

I believe that putting words in someone else’s mouth is an unsanitary disgusting practice, so please do not do that to me. I did not just say we have no responsibility to pay taxes. Actually, I did not personally say anything other than to present two things that Jesus said. 

Are we ethically and morally free of our nation’s imposed tax burdens as Jesus indicated that he was? Do we pay just to keep from being in trouble, or do we have a moral obligation to pay our tax bill? Are there differences between our situation and his such as to declare void his conclusion as it might pertain to our circumstance?

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