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, aneither carest thou for any man: for thou bregardest not the person of men.
17 Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it alawful to give tribute unto Cæsar, or not?
18 But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why atempt 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?
22 When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.
Many people today interpret the above passage as Jesus’ justification for taxation. I hear it in discussions all of the time, and in the modern world where Jesus must be used to justify social justice rhetoric, this passage is trotted out constantly by left-wingers and other lovers of taxation.
Any careful reading of this scripture and the Bible in general will, of course, render such a take ridiculous. It is clear that people at the time did not understand this parable to mean Jesus was justifying taxation — just the opposite, as I will show in this post.
The first and most obvious point is that In Luke 23:2, we read that the three charges brought against Jesus were that 1)he was a subversive 2)he was AGAINST paying taxes to Caesar and 3)he claims to be the Messiah. So, if the audiences at the time universally agreed that Jesus was in favor of paying taxes to Caesar (based on the render unto Caesar quotation), the second charge would have never been brought. The “render unto Caesar” quotation is in three of the four Gospels, including Luke 20:25, so clearly it was well known.
So, what is the correct interpretation of this passage? To completely understand it, we must know more about the history of the First century AD, the Roman occupation of Israel and coinage during the time.
The First Century AD was filled with anti-tax protests and uprisings in the Holy Land. There are several non-Biblical reports of Jewish tax revolts in the years before and after Jesus’ death. Judas the Galilean taught at the time that “taxation was no better than an introduction of slavery,” and he said the only legal tribute was to God. One of Pontius Pilate’s primary charges was to prevent more revolts against Roman rule, which is one reason the governor was in Jerusalem during Passover when Jesus was crucified.
The Caesar at the time was Tiberius Caesar, a pedophile and murderer who claimed to be a god. He was seen by most religious Jews as a completely immoral ruler with no real authority over Jerusalem. So, one of the first questions we must ask ourselves is: how could anybody argue that it was moral or legal to pay taxes to support the empire led by this man?
The “penny” involved in the discussion is important. It was a denarius, which in those times was worth about a day’s wages for a laborer and was commonly carried by Romans and those who did business with the Romans like the Pharisees and the people surrounding Herod. Tiberius issued the denarius from his personal mint and it was considered “the emperor’s property” because it was the primary form of money used to maintain the Roman Empire. The coin had the picture of Tiberius on the front with the phrase “Tiberius Caesar, Worshipful Son of the God, Augustus.” On the other side of the coin we see the Roman goddess of peace, Pax, with the abbreviation “Pontif Maxim,” which means “High Priest.”
It would have been obvious to many religious Jews at the time that the Roman denarius was a violation of Jewish law because it depicted a false image of a person pretending to be a God. It was an idol. In addition, the coin was a violation of the most important Jewish prayer, the Shema, in which Jews point out that Jehovah is their only god.
So, if we go back to Matthew 22:20, we see the irony of the actual son of God and an actual High Priest wondering about the authority of an emperor who is falsely claiming to be a god and is misusing the office of a High Priest. The coin involved was a violation of the most important laws for Jews. We begin to see layers of meaning in this exchange, and at least some of these layers of meaning would have been obvious to people at the time and should of course be obvious to us reading about this event nearly 2000 years later.
To review, the Pharisees wanted to get Jesus in trouble and wanted him to to be hated by the people rather than loved. So they asked him a difficult question: is it legal to pay taxes to Caesar? For the Pharisees, it seemed obvious that any answer would get Jesus in trouble. If he said, “yes, it is legal,” he would seem to be siding with the Romans and would be hated by many potential followers. If he said, “not, it is not legal,” he would be guilty of leading a tax revolt and possibly arrested.
As usual, Jesus outsmarts the hypocrites. He asks to see the coin, which as I have described is a violation of Jewish law. (Some observers may have noted at the time that the Pharisees carried a false idol onto the temple grounds, which was a serious violation of Jewish law). Jesus deliberately asks about the image and the words on the coin.
The easiest and most obvious way of seeing this quotation is that Jesus is simply reminding listeners that His kingdom is not of this world, and the things of the world are not important to Him. Pay taxes to Caesar if you must because Caesar was the law of that world in the 1st century AD.
Indeed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints constantly reminds people that obeying the law, including paying taxes, is what is expected of us. Re-read Doctrine and Covenants 134 for a good exposition on this viewpoint.
So, Jesus and the modern-day Church are not encouraging anti-tax revolts. Pay your taxes so you don’t go to jail is good advice for most people.
But the claim that Jesus is *endorsing* taxation cannot be taken from this story. Why did people “marvel” at Jesus’ answer? Observers at the time would have seen some very subtle opposition to Roman rule. Jesus’ emphasis on the coin — with the image of the immoral emperor who claimed to be a god on it — would have been seen by people at the time as Jewish “trolling” of the Romans, while also trolling the Pharisees who were carrying around Roman coins (even to the temple).
Observers at the time would have seen that Jesus was pointing out that the things of Caesar and the things of God are mutually exclusive. Caesar only cares about “the world,” ie money, power and control, without allowing true freedom. Some of the Pharisees also only cared about the things of the world. God cares about following His commandments and the temple, including avoiding the use of idols and saying the Shema.
The contrast would have been obvious, and it would have been obvious that Jesus was pointing out the importance of following God’s laws while obeying worldly laws if you must. But which laws did Jesus consider more important? The answer should be clear.