Tuesday: Taxes—Render unto God

March 30, 2010

For the next several days, Jesus plays cat and mouse with the temple state authorities, arguing with them in the temple courts during the day and hiding from them in his secret hideout on the Mount of Olives at night. All of this—the hiding, the legal arguments, the parables and denouncements—have political and/or economic dimensions, and they are too many to cover in his little series of blog entries. But some stand out. I want to start with the famous saying, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” This is usually quoted to mean exactly the opposite of what Jesus intended.

Having failed to entrap Jesus in blasphemy, the rulers try tax evasion. In a classic Jesus jiu-jitsu move, he uses their own words and motives to trap and condemn them instead.

Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them; or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to others, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.

Mark 12:13-17

What a subtle story of shrewd maneuvering is the account of the fencing match over taxes to Rome! And how incindiary is the issue. For both religious and political-economic reasons, tax resistance crouched just beneath the ground cover of Judean life, rising as open rebellion several times during Jesus’ own lifetime.

The fate of Jesus’ ministry hung on his answer to this question about taxes. Prevaricate before his challengers and he loses credibility with his followers, who know that fulfillment of the Jubilee and the coming of the kingdom he has promised requires the end of oppressive Roman taxation. Deny Caesar’s authority to tax means certain arrest. This is, perhaps, the most important dialog between Jesus and his adversaries in Christian scripture, at least from the point of view of narrative, of plot development.

At issue is the Roman poll tax, a head tax that requires a census of the population, the very sort of tax census that Luke claims put Mary and Joseph on the road to Bethlehem. That census actually took place in 6 CE, some ten years after Jesus was born, and it led to a tax rebellion that the Romans crushed with brutal force.

Why did Jesus’ people revolt? Because God’s law expressly forbade a tax census, whose primary purpose was always the support of a state bureaucracy and, especially, of a standing army. The legislation against a tax census was written into the constitution federating the twelve tribes of Israel long before Saul and David established the monarchy, and even David did not dare hold a census or organize a standing army. For, as the Song of the Sea put it, “Yahweh is a warrior” (Exodus 15:5)—to God alone is Israel to look for her defense against her enemies, not to her own military resources. In other words, the Roman poll tax usurped Yahweh’s sovereignty as the true king of Israel and violated his covenant with his people.

Beginning with Solomon, the kings of Israel and Judah ignored this law. But the theology behind the law—that God alone is sovereign over his people—remained the central theme throughout the Bible. It inspired many rebellions against usurpers, both domestic and foreign, not least or last Jesus’ own movement. Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees and Herodians will declare who he believes is the rightful sovereign of Judea—God or Caesar.

Jesus’ enemies open the match with a feint to pull him off balance. They invoke his famous integrity, his equal treatment of all people regardless of station, and his forthrightness of speech. His riposte: he asks for a Roman coin—and they produce one.

These Pharisees—these hypocrites who pride themselves on their strict observance of the law, and especially their rigorous adherence to the regulation against anything that would make them unclean, have on their persons objects that violate both the first and second commandments and which are unclean. (Though, in fairness, we may assume that the Herodians produced the coin. ‘Herodian’ was virtually synonymous with assimilationist, meaning someone of the party supporting the line of Herod and their consistent policy of directing Judea toward ‘modernism’, that is, toward cultural assimilation and full economic and political integration into the Roman empire. This included even abandoning circumcision. Their lax attitude toward the law and their physical and cultural associations with Gentiles made Herodians themselves unclean in Pharisaic eyes, however, so either way, these Pharisess are hypocrites.)

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourselves a graven image.

Exodus 15:2-4

But back to the coin. The Roman coin they’ve pulled from their purse and brought into the temple precincts has, on one side, an inscription that reads, “Caesar, son of god”, and on the other side, it bears the image of Caesar-god. Jesus has entrapped them in their own question, unmasked them as hypocrites on their own terms, and indicted them for breach of Yahweh’s covenant on two counts, the first being the essential commandment of all, and of collusion with the Roman engine of economic oppression.

He rubs it in, asking, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” Then he delivers the coup de gras with one of the most familiar and misinterpreted sentences in the Bible: “Render therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

This clever answer deftly sidesteps the trap they have laid for him and yet directly drives home his answer by quoting the very Torah which the Pharisees claim from one side of their mouths and reinterpret from the other. The thrust of his argument lies in the answer to the question: what debt do you owe to God (and to Caesar)?

‘Render’ means in Greek to repay a debt, pay whom you owe. Mark and Luke have set up the story with an earlier story, the parable of the tenants, making it clear that the tenants (the rulers of the temple and of the people of Judea) owe the land-Lord (God), and that what they owe to God is the land itself and its fruits. God, not Caesar, owns the land and its fruits—the economic wealth of Judea—and to him (alone) are the rent dues owed.

Jesus has answered the question of what is rendered to God, decisively and comprehensively. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus specifically defines what we owe God under the law just twelve verses after this duel with the Pharisees, when a scribe asks him what is the greatest commandment (Mk 12:29-31). We’ll talk more about the commandment of love tomorrow.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.

Deuteronomy 6:4

Hear, O Israel: There is only one God, Jesus reminds them, and we owe everything we have to him: our love, our commitment, our minds, our soul, our material possessions, our very lives.

What is left for Caesar after loving God, that is, giving to God all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, as repayment of the debt we owe the Lord? Nothing is left. We render nothing to Caesar, because we have given all to God, and nothing remains. Especially not taxes, since we know that “with all your strength” meant explicitly, with all your material wealth.

Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees and Herodians means: how can we pay the Romans their poll tax, to support the very army that holds us down, when the legal mechanism for executing the tax is against God’s law, when the act itself usurps God’s sovereignty, and when we have already given all we have to the poor, whom Caesar (and yourselves, you hypocrites, he adds) have helped to impoverish? Furthermore, we owe God because God set us free from Pharaoh and our oppressors, gave us this land as an inheritance, and created us as a people. Are we now to owe Caesar for enslaving us, seizing our land, and trying to destroy our identity as a people?

No—it is not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. This is Jesus’ answer. But he has answered in such a way as to shame his challengers and avoid prosecution. “And they were utterly amazed,” say the evangelists. Utterly ‘consternated’ would be a better translation.

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