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The Life of Jesus - Series 11: Episode 9

A question about paying taxes

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 22:15-22
Mark 12:13-17
Luke 20:20-26

The Pharisees and Herodians try to trick Jesus by asking about paying taxes. Jesus replies 'Give Caesar what is Caesar's and God what is God's, clearly defining a difference between Church and State.

The Pharisees and Herodians try to trick Jesus by asking about paying taxes. Jesus replies 'Give Caesar what is Caesar's and God what is God's, clearly defining a difference between Church and State.


Hello, and welcome to Series 11 and Episode 9, ‘A Question about Paying Taxes’. This is a question that was put to Jesus by Pharisees and hostile members of the religious establishment, when Jesus was in the Temple compound teaching during the last week of his life. The text that we're going to look at is Matthew 22: 15 - 22. The story also appears in Mark's Gospel and Luke's Gospel. This is quite a well-known story about Jesus debating with the religious leaders.

Introduction and Recap

Before we get into the story, which has huge implications, we'll remind ourselves of the context. Hopefully many of you will have been following Series 11 all the way through, and seeing how the story is progressing through this last week of Jesus' life, which is where we are in the story of Jesus. If you haven't followed that, or if you need some refreshing of your memory, let's quickly put this in context. As we've stated quite clearly in previous series, Luke describes the journey to Jerusalem that Jesus makes, leaving Galilee, going south and heading towards Jerusalem for the last time, as a major part of his strategy, and a major event in his life. It took him a long time to get from the north to the south of the country, travelling around in many different places. John tells us some details as well, which we've added in as the story has progressed. There's a general sense of excitement and anticipation in the country as people realise that Jesus is heading to Jerusalem, in order to confront his religious opponents, because the religious establishment have decided firmly against him. The atmosphere in Jerusalem, at the time of this particular event, was absolutely electric. So many things have happened that have influenced people and made them wonder what Jesus was going to do next and whether something dramatic might be about to unfold before their eyes.

One of the things that had really been sensational for residents of Jerusalem and the surrounding area, was when Jesus raised a man from the dead in the nearby village of Bethany. His name was Lazarus. The story is told in John 11 and many of the people who witnessed this event, as Lazarus literally came out of the tomb, were in Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, which is taking place at this time. Jerusalem is crowded with pilgrims from all over the country, and from other parts of the world as well, who've come to celebrate one of the main Jewish feasts. They're there, very excited about Jesus, as are crowds who travelled with him along the way, especially people who saw him in Jericho, the nearby city, which he visited shortly before coming to Jerusalem, where it's said that the people were so excited that they ‘thought the Kingdom of God was about to appear at once.’ Luke 19: 11 states that, as Jesus leaves Jericho and heads up to Jerusalem.

We've also seen the spectacular event of the Triumphal Entry, on what we call Palm Sunday, the Sunday that begins this week, where huge crowds gathered to welcome Jesus into the city. This had never happened before. Previous visits to the city, normally he'd come very quietly in, and there'd been a lot of controversy and complexity to those visits, but this was a very public event. On the Monday, the day after Palm Sunday, Jesus had spectacularly cleansed the Temple, overturning the money changers and those selling animals for sacrifices, making a lot of money and working with the priests to make a pretty good income out of the religious needs of the Jewish people. Jesus challenged that.

This particular discussion here in question, is in the context of what appears to be a long day of ongoing arguments and debates. Jesus is in the Temple compound and Luke tells us very tellingly that, in Luke 21: 37 - 38 that during this week

37Each day Jesus was teaching at the Temple, and each evening he went out to spend the night on the hill called the Mount of Olives, 38and all the people came early in the morning to hear him at the Temple.’

Luke 21:37-38, NIV

Every day he was there teaching and on this particular occasion, some of the most senior leaders had engaged in dialogue with him. ‘The chief priests and the elders of the people came to him.’ according to Matthew 21: 23, which is a part of the same narrative that we are looking at now. It's a very tense atmosphere where the religious authorities are nervous and wanting to take action against Jesus. They were particularly enraged by the three parables that Jesus had told immediately before this question. If you've listened to this series, you'll know that these three parables are the subject of the last three episodes; the parable of The Two Sons, and then secondly the parable of The Tenants, and thirdly the parable of The Wedding Banquet. All these parables were aimed at the religious leaders, pointing out that they were hostile to, and resisting Jesus as the Messiah, and warning them of judgement, and indicating that unexpected people were entering the Kingdom of God while they themselves were failing to enter the Kingdom of God because of unbelief. This really enraged the religious leaders and they were really annoyed that Jesus was telling these stories in public. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people were hearing him telling stories against them and undermining their authority. And so, they tried to trip him up with questions.

The Opponents of Jesus

This is a trick question we're going to study today and we'll see how Jesus deals with a trick question, which was designed to trap him into saying something that could be used against him, to condemn him, probably in a court of law. Let's read the account. Matthew 22: 15 - 22:

15Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” 18But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” 21“Caesar's,” they replied. Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's.” 22When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.’

Matthew 22:15-22, NIV

Before we get to the exact question, let's think a little more about what's happening with Jesus' opponents. It's a kind of conspiracy that's developing amongst a number of different factions. We have here the Pharisees, working with the Herodians. The Jewish ruling council, known as the Sanhedrin, which operated in Jerusalem, and which supervised the Temple worship, and was the final religious court in Judaism, had already decided firmly against Jesus as the Messiah and they were keen to get rid of him. If we go back in time, we'll see an early indication of this in Matthew 12: 24, where some Pharisees are talking to the crowd and to Jesus about who Jesus is. The crowd asked “Could this be the Son of David?” after a remarkable miracle, but the Pharisees heard this and said “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.” Thereby convicting him of being a false messiah, operating by supernatural and evil power against the will of God. They took a consistent line all the way through, which will go right up until the formal trial of Jesus by the High Priest and the Sanhedrin, that's going to take place just in two or three-days' time from this particular event. They were completely opposed to him.

There were lots of political and religious factions in Jerusalem that were very keen to get rid of Jesus for different reasons. We have to bear in mind that the political rulers were the Romans, not the Jews, but the Jews had a lot of influence on the Romans, and the Jews had jurisdiction and authority over their religion, which the Romans stayed away from as much as they could. All the major religious and political factions were now opposed to Jesus, and they're all represented in these questions and debates that go on in the final week of Jesus' life. The priesthood, led by the high priest who chaired the Sanhedrin, were very opposed to Jesus because they felt that he threatened Temple worship, and they were very angry about the cleansing of the Temple that had taken place. The Sadducees were a faction that appeared from time to time who followed the same thinking as the priests and supported them. The Pharisees, who we see a lot in the Gospel narrative, were focused on the religious law, and created lots of their own traditions about the rights and wrongs of practical behaviour, and they'd been consistently opposed to Jesus. Jesus had condemned the fact that they had added on to the Law of Moses with their own traditions, and put a huge burden on the people. Another group are the Herodians, who are mentioned here at the beginning, the Pharisees and the Herodians come together. The Herodians are a political faction, who support the Roman rule, and support the family of King Herod, which was part of the political establishment. They particularly support Herod the Tetrarch or Herod Antipas, who ruled in Galilee. They want to protect that political power from Jesus. They're afraid that a revolution will create conflict with the political authorities. They're collaborators, and making money out of collaborating with the Romans.

The religious authorities had been in conflict with Jesus for some time, and John makes this clear in his account of Jesus' earlier visits to Jerusalem. John is the only one who tells us anything significant about these earlier visits before this final visit, that we are talking about. We find some very remarkable things that we've looked at as we've studied these events. For example, in John 8: 59, after Jesus made a claim about his eternity,

‘they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the Temple grounds.’

John 8:59, NIV

So, there was an attempt to kill him even then. Then after the raising of Lazarus from the dead, there's a very interesting statement in John 11: 55 - 57, which is talking about the Passover feast, that we're now experiencing in the events that we're describing in this episode:

55When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, many went up from the country to Jerusalem for their ceremonial cleansing before the Passover. 56They kept looking for Jesus, and as they stood in the Temple courts they asked one another, “What do you think? Isn't he coming to the festival at all?” 57But the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who found out where Jesus was, should report it so that they could arrest him.’

John 11:55-57, NIV

Not only this, but at this particular stage we find that the religious authorities are actually sending spies into the crowds around Jesus. Luke 20: 20 which describes the same incident that Matthew does, that we're dealing with today, says:

‘Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere.’

Luke 20:20, NIV

This is a conspiracy of all the powerful factions in Judaism to eliminate Jesus, to arrest him, to try him, to hand him over to the Romans, in the hope that the Romans would execute him. The background is intense.

The Background to The Trick Question

And the question is a sharp and difficult one. Let's just look at it again. Matthew 22: 16 - 17:

“Teacher,” they asked, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”

Matthew 22:16-17, NIV

This is not the first trick question that they have asked him. In Matthew 21: 23 they asked,

‘“By what authority are you doing these things?”’

Matthew 21:23, NIV

hoping to trap him there, and he overcame that question, as we saw in an earlier episode. The background to this question is very interesting and very helpful. Let's trace the background and see what they're driving at, and what they're trying to do in tricking Jesus. The Romans ruled the whole of the nation of Israel, divided into different provinces, and they had a different structure of rule in different places. In Jerusalem and in Judea, that area, it was direct rule through the Roman governor or procurator who, at that time, was a man called Pontius Pilate. In Jesus' home district, in Galilee, was an indirect rule through a puppet king who worked and collaborated with the Romans whose name was Herod Antipas, or Herod the Tetrarch. Whether it was direct rule or indirect rule, the Romans made the final decisions, especially about taxation. All the way across the Empire they raised taxes from their imperial subjects, which were intended to fund the imperial administration, civil service, the army, and other necessary services and infrastructure, that they needed to run their Empire. Taxation, of course, like this was unpopular. It was particularly unpopular amongst the Jews. In fact, occasionally there were rebellions and uprisings about taxation amongst the Jews. For example, Judas of Galilee, in six A.D. in the early years of Jesus' life, had a brief and unsuccessful uprising. The Romans used a system of tax collectors who were franchised out to collect money, who had a geographical area collecting customs taxes, and direct imperial taxes on each person. We meet these tax collectors frequently in the Gospels and they are unpopular because they're working for the Romans, and also because they could be unscrupulous, and collect extra money beyond what the Romans required, and keep it for themselves.

However, this story is not mainly about tax collectors, it's about the principle of taxation. The Jews intensely dislike it. They didn't want to be under the Romans in the first place, and taxation was a symbol of oppression. Not only was it a symbol of oppression, it was a symbol of an attack on their religious beliefs. For this reason: the Romans took taxation, usually in the form of their coins which are known as a denarius, as mentioned in the text here and mentioned elsewhere in the Gospels. Now a denarius was a regular coin, used across the Roman Empire, and was coined in a number of different ways over the years. Many of these coins have been recovered and survive to this day, and we can see them and what was imprinted on them. Generally speaking, they had the head of the Emperor on the coin. You could see the head of the current Emperor on the coin, a bit like modern coinages have presidents, or famous people, or monarchs on them to this day. It was the same in those days.

The Emperor was called generically ‘Caesar’ and that's what's being described here. Caesar is the name for the Emperor, the general name. Particular Emperors had slightly different statements made about them. At this particular time, the Emperor Tiberius, his full name Tiberius Caesar, had printed on many of these coins the statement, ‘Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus’. And he had another statement on the coins very often which, in Latin, was ‘Pontifex Maximus’, or high priest, or chief priest. These inscriptions indicated that the Emperor claimed a degree of divinity, that his predecessor was considered divine. Divine status was given to the Emperor by Roman culture. He was also considered to be the high priest of the Roman religion. This was very offensive to the Jews who totally resisted the Roman religion. They did not compromise with the Roman belief in all those many gods of the Roman Empire. They believed in one God, Yahweh, the God of Israel. This was a point of tension between them and the Romans on many occasions. Paying taxes had the problem that it was an imperial tax which was unpopular generally, so that was one problem, but it also had a religious or spiritual dimension, in that you were giving money to the Romans which had these inscriptions on the coins, which ascribed to the Emperor divine status and religious authority, which the Jews completely denied. There were different opinions about whether to pay taxes. The Pharisees definitely didn't want to. The Zealots, who were the political, revolutionary movement of the day, were strongly opposed. The Herodians, who I've just mentioned, were in favour of paying taxes, because they were collaborating with the Romans. But for the most part, Jews were very opposed to paying this taxation to the Romans.

The Trick Question

So, what's the trick in the question? If Jesus says that the Jews should not pay taxes to the Romans, that would be an act or a statement of rebellion, an incitement to rebellion against the Romans. What they could do then, is to arrest him and hand him over to the Romans, and say, ‘This man is leading a rebellion, he is asking people not to pay taxes to you’. If Jesus said ‘Don't pay tax to the Romans,’ there's an immediate threat. He could be handed over to the Romans as a criminal straight after that. If he says, ‘Yes’ to paying taxes, how can he be the true Messiah, and how can he be a loyal Jew if he's endorsing this Roman taxation? If he says ‘Yes, it's good thing to pay taxes’, he's basically saying, ‘I'm endorsing all the inscriptions on the coins, I'm endorsing the Roman religion, I'm endorsing the idea that the Emperor Tiberius has a divine status,’ and he couldn't possibly be the Jewish Messiah if he did that. So, this is a trick question.

Jesus' Answer

Jesus' answer is, “Show me a coin”, and then he looks at the inscription, and he makes the statement in verse 21 ‘“Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's.”’ In so doing, he did not fall into the trap that they had set him. He accepted that they needed to pay taxation to the Romans, but he denied the spiritual authority of the Romans. He denied the religious claims of the Emperor. He said, ‘We need to give to God what is God's’, and thereby he avoided the trap that they had set him. They immediately realised that he gave a more subtle answer than they expected. They thought he'd say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but he said ‘yes’ with qualifications. And so, in verse 22,

‘When they heard this, they were amazed.’ ‘they left him and went away.’

Matthew 22:22, NIV

Quite the opposite of arresting him, they suddenly realised his answer was cleverer than their question. The questioners were humbled.


What's the significance of all this? It's significant in the story of the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders, as I've explained. But it's significant in a number of other ways, and these are the reflections I want to bring as we come to the end of this episode. It shows, first of all, the extraordinary character and wisdom of Jesus, even under such intense pressure.

It's also a strong message of warning about idolatry of political power. Jesus respects political power, but he does not give into the idea that it has any religious or spiritual significance.

My main reflection here is that this statement implies the separation of religion and the state as to be the will of God in the era of the Church. The separation of the state and the Church is implied. The Church will respect the state, but the Church will not be taken under the control of the state and speak out the state's messages on every matter. If we look for example in Romans 13: 1 - 7, Paul, taking from the implications of what Jesus teaches here, expresses to Christians the view that we should acknowledge those who are ruling authorities, accept that God has allowed them to come to power, that they have a mission to bring justice to society and peace; they have power to do that. We should respect them, and we should pay taxes to them. Paul makes that point very specifically in Romans 13:1 - 7. Similar points are made in 1 Peter 2: 13 - 17, when Peter addresses a similar question. However, the state is fallible: it's weak; it can be corrupt; and it can even turn against the Church. Whilst we respect the state, and we want it to do well in bringing justice and harmony to society, we have, as believers, a primary loyalty to the Kingdom of God. Jesus said that we need to give to God what belongs to God. There's a higher loyalty than the state for the Christian believer. There are times when we will find ourselves in conflict with the state. This happened in the early church very quickly, when the authorities of the Sanhedrin, representing the Jewish religious establishment, told the Apostles that they needed to stop speaking about Jesus, the Messiah. And in Acts 4: 19 - 20, Peter and John's answer is very interesting.

19But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God's eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! 20As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”’

Acts 4:19-20, NIV

There's a balance here. Our primary loyalty, as Christians, is to the God of our salvation. We don't recognise any other religion other than true Christianity. We don't recognise that the state has power to become a religious institution in its own right, as the Roman Empire had clearly done, giving the Emperor the status of the chief priest, or high priest of the whole Roman religion. We can't accept that, as believers. We submit to the state in all civic and ordinary matters of the running of society. We'll contribute to the state as much as we can. In democratic societies, we can shape the state by voting and participation. We'll pay our taxes but paying taxes does not denote that the state has a greater claim on our loyalty than does God himself. That's the pattern that the true Church has sought to follow through the ages and it's based, principally, on this teaching, by which Jesus implicitly divides the state, the government of any nation, from the Church. The Church may cooperate in many areas, but can't become the same institution, can't come under total control without huge compromises taking place. This is a challenging and incredibly exciting teaching. Its application to us will be very different according to the culture and context in which we live. The applications I might make in the United Kingdom may be very different to the ones that you make in your country. I encourage you to reflect on this text, to go over it again, to make sure you understand its meaning, and to pray and ask God to show, through the Holy Spirit's guidance, how you can apply this teaching to yourselves - how you can give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what belongs to God alone.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What is your attitude to taxation?
  • Discipleship
    1. How can you 'give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what belongs to him alone’?
    2. Are you aware of opponents to your faith trying to trick you in some way?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Do you agree that the church and state should be separate? Give some pros and cons.
    2. Using Romans 13:1 - 7 and 1 Peter 2:13 - 17 as a guide, what should be your attitude as a Christian to the authorities governing over you?
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