I used to think I understood the famous passage where Jesus says, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Matt. 22:15-22 | Mk 12:13-17 | Lk 20:19-26). Then I had to explain it to third graders.
As most of you know, Jesus' enemies sought to put him on the horns of a dilemma. By asking him, "Are we allowed to pay taxes to Caesar?" they thought he would have two choices. He could say, "No!" and promptly be arrested by the Herodians who had come along with the Pharisees for just this purpose. Or, he could say, "Yes, you must pay taxes to the hated, ungodly Roman government," and be understood by his people as a traitor. In their view, he would be not merely a traitor to his people, but to God, because any kingdom that sets itself up against God's anointed must be an enemy of God. How could one who hopes in Yahweh's promise ever think that there could be peace with the Romans?
This part is easy to understand. What is not so easy to understand is how Jesus got out of the dilemma.
The usual way of understanding this passage (which dates back to Justin Martyr, one of the very earliest church Fathers) is that when Jesus said, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars," he meant, "Yes, you must pay taxes." But if this is the correct understanding of the passage, didn't Jesus do exactly what they were hoping he would do? Didn't he fall into their trap? Why did they walk away amazed?
For this reason, there is actually considerable confusion in the interpretation of this passage. Some (e.g., Marcus Borg) have said that Jesus' answer was really no answer at all--it was a deliberately confusing answer which confounded his opponents by its obscurity. Jesus, after all, never defined by "what belongs to Caesar" and "what belongs to God". The reason they went away amazed had nothing to do with Jesus' answer, but with a clever ad hominem argument that he made along the way (see below).
Similarly, some have argued that although Jesus never defined "what belongs to God," it ought to be obvious. Everything belongs to God--there is nothing left over for Caesar. Hence, some have taken this passage as justification for not paying taxes under some circumstances. (A carefully reasoned and nuanced discussion of this viewpoint, which also combines elements of the "Jesus wiggles out by being obscure" viewpoint as well, is here.) This sort of answer is particularly popular with pacifists who seek justification for not paying taxes that go toward the military machinery (just do a google search on "render to Caesar" to see what is out there).
So, if either of these is correct, why then did they walk away amazed? If Jesus answer was deliberately obscure, why wouldn't they just force him to clarify? And if Jesus' answer is that you need not pay taxes, why didn't they arrest him? One reason may have been Jesus' clever request for the coin. The coin itself was a Roman denarius, presumably with a picture of the then-current emperor Tiberius on it. And the inscription, when translated, reads, "Tiberius Caesar, worshipful son of the god Augustus." It is tantamount to a claim to divinity. Before Nero, the emperors did not make overt claims to divinity during their lifetimes, but as this coin shows, Augustus was deified when he died, and Tiberius is claiming some right of worship.
This coin, therefore, is brazenly against Jewish claims of the one true God, and deeply offensive to sincere Jews. Yet Jesus' questioners seem to have one handy, even right there in the temple, while Jesus has to ask for one. Some have therefore argued that Jesus' request to see the coin was basically a cheap debaters trick, essentially an ad hominem argument. It shows that his opponents are merely masquerading as champions of Jewish orthodoxy, but have no problem in practice collaborating with Rome. And they stupidly fell into his trap.
I find this a little unsatisfying. It is not the fact that this is basically an ad hominem argument that bothers me. In fact, the whole tenor of the discussion in the temple during the last week before the crucifixion is very personal and bitter, and Jesus takes his opponents' character to task in no uncertain terms. The issue really is character: are the Jewish leaders of that time worthy, or are they the sort of bad shepherds that God is about to remove? Hence, an ad hominem argument is in fact appropriate.
But is the ability to produce a Roman coin really so damning? We know that only the most extreme of the zealots refused to handle Roman money. Furthermore, the Herodians accompanied the Pharisees, and they would have no qualms about producing a denarius. No one had any doubt where their loyalties lay. The text does not say that it was the Pharisees who produced the idolatrous coin; if it was the Herodians, then the whole argument about the character of the leaders being revealed by their production of the coin falls flat on its face. Surely, if the gospel writers meant the argument to hinge on this sudden revelation of the cravenness of the Jewish leaders, they would have made it clear that it was some unsuspecting Pharisee who pulled it out of his pocket before he realized what he was doing. Nowhere else are they shy about pointing out the faults of the Pharisees.
Furthermore, the idea that Jesus is triumphing over his opponents by dodging the issue is unlikely in this literary context. Imagine the gospel writers, ardent admirers of Jesus, writing pro-Jesus propaganda, telling the story of when Jesus is asked a deep and important question. All eyes are focussed on him, and then he says, "Mumble mumble mumble." Here we see the great wise man, most skilled sage in all Israel, triumphantly dodging a dangerous question. It just seems out of character. The gospels are largely composed of short narratives (called "pericopes") with a short concluding word from Jesus that is the main point, and that short concluding word is always climactic and pithy, full of meaning. Hence, I think they were not astounded by his ability to evade the question, and thus these interpretations are misguided. We have to understand the episode of the coin differently.
So why does he ask to see the coin, instead of simply giving an answer? "Whose image and inscription are on it?" The natural way of reading this, and the traditional reading in the church, is that Caesar's picture and writing on it shows that it belongs to Caesar, and therefore taxes ought to be payed to Caesar. The image and inscription are a sign of ownership of the money, and therefore Caesar can do what he wants with it.
Now if all that Jesus wanted to do was to say you must pay your taxes, I think he would not make some dodgy, almost poetic argument about the picture on the coin. I mean, I have never in my life heard or read anyone saying that you must pay taxes in the U.S. because George Washington's picture is on our currency. Yes, I know that the fact that Caesar's image is on the coin shows that Caesar minted it, and therefore Caesar is in control of the money supply, and therefore Caesar has the right to control the economy, and so on. But if you really want to make that argument solid, you would not start with the picture on the coin. There are many other reasons for paying taxes; Paul and Peter discuss them in the epistles, and they do not use the argument from the picture on the coin. Neither does anyone else, in ancient literature or modern, as far as I know. After all, does Caesar's picture on the coin mean that we give to Caesar every coin in our pockets? Jesus must be leaving out big parts of the argument about taxes. He wants to direct our attention to something else more important than taxes, and he is using a not-entirely-logical argument about taxes to make a very logical argument about something else.
"Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are God's." If we know that the coin is Caesar's because his image and inscription are on it, then how do we know what is God's? Well, what has God's image and inscription? You do, of course, and so do I; so does everyone listening to Jesus. This understanding of the passage is at least as old as Tertullian. Contra the viewpoints expressed above, Jesus does define what belongs to God--that is the whole point of the question about the coin. "Render to God the things that are God's" is a call for those in the image of God to submit themselves to God.
(In this statement, Jesus also repudiates the emperor's claim to quasi-divine status. Worship is to be rendered to God, not the emperor. Jesus clearly does not accept the Roman propaganda on the coins, and no listener could possibly conclude that Jesus has abandoned Jewish monotheism, even if he does advocate paying Roman taxes with idolatrous Roman money. But this seems to be a side issue.)
Jesus' response, then, leads us away from money back to loyalty to God. This story is not primarily about taxes, and we miss the point entirely if we are looking only for an answer to that question. This is a typical move by Jesus: he takes a practical question, reformulates in in terms of love for God, and turns it back on the questioner, who is supposed to realize he was asking a trivial question when a more fundamental issue is at stake. Give to Caesar these worthless bits of metal he wants, and give the truly valuable things to God.
Remember that the Jews saw only two possible options in dealing with the Romans. You could be loyal to Judaism and to God's kingdom here on earth by opposing the Romans; or you could support the Romans and be a traitor to Judaism, to the covenant, and to God. What Jesus has done with this answer is to advocate a third option: you can pay taxes to Caesar and still be loyal to God. He never advocates disobedience to the Romans, but he unquestionably is devoted to God as well. This is consistent with the kind of kingdom Jesus has been advocating throughout his whole ministry (see my previous post), but decidedly inconsistent with the understanding of the kingdom that first century Jews shared. This is how he escapes being a traitor to God while still arguing for paying taxes.
It is not only his argument for a new kind of kingdom that saves Jesus from the dilemma they tried to force him onto. Jesus is now standing in the very temple which only few days earlier he had cleaned of sacrilegious buying and selling, sanctioned by other Jewish leaders who had most decidedly not been rendering to God what belonged to him. Furthermore, he had just accused all of the Jewish leaders, the Pharisees included, of not rendering to God the things that are God when he told the parable of the tenant farmers earlier that day. God wanted the fruit from his vineyard (Israel; see Isaiah 5), but these tenants refused to yield a reasonable rent to the landowner when asked, and in fact killed the landlord's son so that ownership of the fields would revert to the tenants (as prescribed by Jewish law). Everyone understood that he told this outrageous, shocking story about the Jewish leaders who refused to render to God the things that belonged to God--specifically, they were unwilling to give up Israel to her lord when he showed up, because they wanted it for themselves.
As with every other narrative in this section, Jesus has taken their accusatory question, and turned it into an accusation against his enemies. But as with the other encounters, he takes a dated, pedantic question, and turns it into a life-giving answer about the core of life. Jesus' response about Roman taxes in the first century still forces us to examine today whether we are rendering to God the things that are God's.