Give Back to Caesar
How many here like to pay taxes? While a good percentage of Americans are exempted of paying income tax, the smaller percentage carries the load. Seventy-five years ago the US Tax Code was two pages long. Today it is 189 pages. There are 97 different taxes that Americans have to pay. Of course, we pay state and federal income taxes and sales taxes. The reading from the Gospel is about taxation. To better understand the Bible, it is good to understand the context and background information that undergirds the Scripture reading.
In the first century, the Roman Empire covered much of the world. It took a lot of money to support the Roman system. Pax Romana was expensive. The peace of Rome cost a lot of money and they raised that money by taxing people throughout the Empire. Like Americans, Rome had a lot of taxes. They had a 10% land tax farmers paid on grain. There was a land tax of 20% on wine and Olive oil. There were customs taxes raised at harbors, piers, crossroads and city gates. The disciple Matthew was the tax man at border near Capernaum. There was also a 1% income tax. There was a head tax or a census tax but I will speak more about it later. There were other Roman taxes and the tax burden on people in the Empire was great. The tax burden fell on Roman citizens but also non-citizens were required to pay taxes too. Do you think residents of the Roman Empire were happy with such taxation?
The people of Israel were unhappy with Roman occupation and with having to pay taxes to the pagan Romans. Periodically, a nationalist would arise to get people to fight against Rome. In 6 AD a rebellion began led by Judas of Galilee. He is not the disciple Judas. He is another Judas. He wanted to fight the Romans and remove them from Israel. His theme: “God is our only God; God is the Lord, and God is our Ruler, and we will not pay this tax to Rome.” He was not successful. The Romans squashed the rebellion with their brutal army. However, the people of Israel remembered Judas’ tax rebellion and some sixty years later a new rebellion began. It began when Eleazar, Captain of the Temple, issued an order stopping daily sacrifices in the temple on behalf of the Emperor. This rebellion brought disaster on Jerusalem and Israel. Tens of thousands of Roman soldiers led by Titus completely destroyed Jerusalem and the temple. It marked the end of Judaism as they knew it.
Jesus was approached by some disciples of the Pharisees and several Herodians. You might know about the Pharisees. They were a nationalistic group of Jews who sought to live out all 613 rules of the Jewish Law. They did not like Roman occupation of their country. Jesus was highly critical of the Pharisees. They resented Jesus because he opposed them. They resented Him because He was capturing the hearts of the people. They were filled with envy and jealousy toward Jesus. They resented Him because of His claims to be the Messiah, the Son of God. They did not like Him calling them hypocrites when they thought they were the religious good guys. They resented Him because he judged them. The Pharisees saw Him as threatening the status quo and worried He would bring the wrath of Rome down on them.
In contrast to the Pharisees, there were the Herodians. They were of the Party of Herod. Herod the Great was the first of the Herods to rule in Israel. He was not a Jew but an Edomite. Several of his sons came to rule after he died. You might have heard of Herod Antipas. He was the bad guy that had John the Baptist decapitated. The Herodians were friends of Rome. They were not Jewish nationalists. So we find two odd groups coming together to ask Jesus a serious question. We have Pharisee disciples who were anti-Rome and Herodians who were pro-Rome. They were at the opposite ends of the political spectrum.
I presented the historical and cultural backdrop of Israel and Rome in the First Century to help us better understand the encounter between Jesus and the combined group of Pharisees and Herodians. I know many of us had unpleasant experiences studying history in school. However, thank you for bearing with me as I unpack the encounter between Jesus and the combined group of Pharisees and Herodians.
The combined groups of Pharisees and Herodians have been watching Jesus in the temple. They joined forces to try to eliminate Him. Both groups hated Him. They come to snare Jesus, to trap Him so that they can get the Romans to take care of the Jesus problem. They approach Jesus with flattery. They call Him a man of integrity. They tell Him that He teaches “the way of God in accordance with the truth.” They tell Him that he is not “swayed by others, because [He pays] no attention to who they are.” Do they believe what they are saying? No, they think He will be disarmed as they try to butter Him up. They figure that by flattering Him they will get Him more quickly into the trap they are setting.
They then ask Him questions: “Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not (Matthew 22:17)?” The imperial tax is the census tax on everyone of one denarius per year. It is the equivalent of a day’s pay for a laborer. In their minds there are only two possible answers to the question, Yes or No. If Jesus answers with a No, the Herodians can now charge Him with treason against Rome. To answer “No” is rebellion against Rome. If He answers “No,” they would quickly go to the Roman authorities and have Him arrested. The Romans would try Him and kill him. If he answers “No” their goal is accomplished.
However, if He answers “Yes” the Pharisees will accuse Him of disloyalty to the Jewish nation and Jesus would lose support of the people. To answer “Yes” means that they would neutralize Jesus and their problem is solved. With the question, “Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?,” they are putting Jesus into what we call a Catch-22. Regardless of His answer, it is wrong.
They underestimate their adversary, Jesus. He knows their evil intent. He is unimpressed with their flattery. Jesus asks them a question, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They bring Him a denarius. He asks them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” The silver coin likely had the image of Emperor Tiberius on it. And on the reverse side it had an inscription indicating the Emperor’s name. Only the Emperor could mint gold or silver coins. The Roman Senate could mint coins but only made of copper. I was curious about today’s value of a Tiberius denarius and checked eBay. There were several offers of the coin at around $400 per coin. The Pharisees and Herodians answer Jesus’ question correctly, “Caesar’s. The coin has the image and inscription of the Roman Emperor.
Now it comes to Jesus’ answer they are looking for. How will He entrap Himself? He replies, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” They did not expect His answer and were amazed and went away. Were they amazed at His wisdom or that He beat them? Maybe both.
Jesus’ answer is a two part one. He first says, “Give back to Caesar that which is Caesar’s…” Caesar is the ruler of the worldly kingdom. He is the ruler of the temporary kingdom. He holds power over the world. Jesus is saying that if Caesar demands money, give it to him. It is his money anyway. They benefit in some way from the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome. Periodically, there are those who argue that the Federal Income Tax is wrong and we need not pay it. However, we certainly benefit from the protections and services we receive that are paid via our taxes. If Jesus is telling the Jews to pay taxes to the totalitarian pagan Roman Emperor, then we who live in a Republic certainly ought to pay our taxes. I do not think one can make an argument against taxation using Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and the Herodians.
While many know Jesus’ response they only know the first part, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s… Many do not recognize that His response is a two part one. He tells us, “and to God what is God’s.” It is likely easier to pay taxes to the government than to give to God what is God’s. And what is God’s? As Creator, God made everything, including you and me. Everything is God’s. God created the entire universe and it belongs to Him. As the image of the Roman Emperor is on a silver denarius, God’s image is on everyone. As Caesar’s image is stamped on a denarius, God’s image is stamped on everyone.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia writes, “Our job as believers is to figure out what things belong to Caesar, and what things belong to God—And then put those things in right order in our own lives and in our relations with others.” When it comes to worship, we owe God our worship. To worship Caesar in any form is wrong. We are to give back to God the things that are eternal. God wants our entire beings, body, mind, soul and strength. He wants more than a silver coin here and there. We must be certain to give God what belongs to Him. While we are to give back to Caesar the things that belong to him, we must not forget to give back to God that which belongs to Him.
A Sermon Preached at Veterans Memorial Chapel
on 22 October 2023
by CH (COL) Michael W. Malone, AUS, RET