in honor of tax day
like most of us living in the united states at the time,
i witnessed the bombing of iraq through the evening news.
i watched in disbelief as balls of fire billowed out of
the bagdad cityscape against a tornado green sky. as green
turned into apocaplyptic orange and the death toll started
its count, i made the decision right then and there to
never pay my taxes. i was familiar with jesus' "render
unto caesar," but for maybe the first time in my
life, i begged to differ. maybe jesus figured out a way
to love his enemies and turn the other cheek while also
writing checks off to the roman military, but i certainly
didnt know how. to love my enemy meant also to not kill
them and if my taxes were going to pay for what i was
watching on tv that night then that meant i had to keep
the denarius out of caesar's pocket. i didnt care whose
image was on there.
but as the war raged on, i could not get jesus words out
of my mind:
render unto caesar what is caesar's
and to God what is God's
how could jesus say that? why did he say that? was there
something jesus knew that i didnt?
i wanted to know. so i did some bible study.
what i discovered fascinated me. and i would love to share
that with you all. so buckle your seats belts, because we're
gonna do some bible study:
the question gives away the answer
So they watched him and sent spies who pretended to be
honest, in order to trap him by what he said, so as to hand
him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor.
So they asked him, Teacher, we know that you are right in
what you say and teach, and you show deference to no one,
but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it
lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?"
okay, so the first thing that needs attention and that will
help bring some context to this passage is the fact that jesus
is even being asked this question at all.
jesus had spent the past three years of his life traveling
around teaching and preaching his message. surely, after
three years, folks would have had a solid understanding of
his message. no doubt the "scribes and chief priests" who were
shadowing his every move and noting his every word would have
had a thorough grasp of what he was advocating. if jesus had
taught benevolent submission to the emperor or had never done
and said anything that would have suggested that he was opposed
to paying taxes, then why would anyone ask him this question
"in order to trap him" and "hand him over to the authority of
that they even asked the question gives away his answer. clearly,
if there hope was to "trap him" and get him to say something
that would get him in trouble with the State, they were expecting
him to say something that he had said before.
a small detail that gives away the questioner's expections of
his negative answer comes in verse 21:
Teacher...we know that you show deference to no one..."
"deference" is what one shows people in power. "deference" is
what one gives to the emperor. webster's dictionary defines
"deference" as "respect and esteem due a superior." in this
case, the emperor.
so they ask the question like this: jesus, we know that you
don't honor the emperor, but God alone, so tell us, should
we pay taxes to caesar or not?
like i said before, that they even asked him the question
gives away the answer. they expect him to say "no" in hopes of
getting him in trouble with the State authorities. clearly,
jesus had preached about this topic before and everyone knew
what he was going to say next. or did they?
coins as propaganda
But he percieved their craftiness and said to them, "Show me
a denairus. Whose head and whose title does it bear?"
before newspapers, televisions and the internet, folks had to
communicate the important events of the day in some other way. for
the media in first-century rome, that way was by minting coins.
rome realized that no matter who you were or where you lived,
in order to survive you needed to handle currency in some way or
another. roman currency was a like a tangible internet--it
circulated around around the vast empire and created a sort of
web that connected everybody together.
they recognized the potential that currency had as a form of
communication. if they could print the news on a set of coins
and then release them into the empire, everybody in a matter of
months would know what was going on.
the minter of roman coins was, of course, the roman empire. so
logically, the news was rome and emperor-centered (no local
nazareth news here). the news that the empire found worthy to
print up was the news of military victories, the crowning of new
emperors or any new titles the emperor claimed for himself. in
other words, imperial propaganda.
the minting of coins didnt' happen every decade or so as it
seems to here in the united states. new coins were being printed
all the time. no one made a fuss about a new quarter or denarius.
they were used to that. but what they might have made a fuss over
was the kind of message the new coins were communicating. and
that is precisely what jesus is drawing attention to in this
jesus is asked, "we know that you do not honor the emperor, but
God alone. so we want to know, do we pay taxes to caesar or not?"
jesus asks for someone to bring him a coin. we can assume that
by now, jesus has a got a sizeable crowd surrounding him. after
all, this was a question that was probably on everyone's mind
since it was passover (the jews' celebration of their political
liberation from a past empire). so jesus has a got an audience
and he is going to make a show of it. "show me a coin," he says.
someone in the crowd tosses him a coin. holding it up, he asks
the crowd, "whose head and whose title does it bear?"
why does jesus do this? people were handling coins all the time.
people knew what was printed on the coins. its like asking,
"hey, who's face is on the dollar bill?" its a silly question.
everyone knows the answer is "the president." so why ask? why
make a biff fuss out of something so commonly known?
the answer is fascinating.
what did the romans use coins for again? to circulate news
they wanted everybody to know (and believe). so what news did
they find important in jesus' day?
if you took a trip to am archeological museum and walked
into the wing that contained artifacts from the time of
jesus, you would find a whole selection of coins to examine.
maybe the one that jesus had held up in front of the crowd.
if you leaned in and took a good close look at the coin you
would read a mysterious little phrase inscribed next to
caesar's face: DIVI F
DIVI F means divius filius, that is "Son of the Divine
One" or "Son of God."
hmm, things are getting interesting now, eh?
during the time of jesus, roman emperors believed that they
had been endowed with divinity. some believed they were the
representations of God on earth and some even claimed to be
the Son of God. they were worthy of obedience and worship.
and that meant things like attending parades in their honor,
setting up statues of their sculpted bodies, burning incense
as a sign of your fidelity to their reign and...paying taxes.
but wait a minute, don't jesus' followers call jesus "the
Son of God"? who was borrowing whose language? was caesar
snacking on jesus' claim to divinity? or was it the other way
before some powerless day-laborer was given the title "Son
of God," the most powerful human being alive had given himself
that title. it was his way of claiming supreme control of all
the earth and its inhabitants. Caesar was God.
"Son of God" is not a spiritual title, its a political title.
a royal title. it does not mean "born of the virgin mary" or
"jesus died for your sins." it means, "this person is the
king, the president, the monarch, the ruler of this nation, of
this world." it was a title that the roman emperor specifically
claimed for himself. and it was the title some poor peasant day-
laborers gave to their leader.
jesus asked this simple question to point out what everyone
already knew: caesar claims to be what i really am.
and what's more, caesar claims to be who God really is.
fidelity, not ownership
They said, "The emperor's." He said to them, "Then give to the
emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that
by making a show of the imperial propaganda to his investigators
and his audience, jesus is drawing out the real significance of
this issue. the question isn't about ownership--who owns the
coin; but rather about allegiance--what is the owner of the coin
claiming about himself. and do you accept that or not?
if this passage is about allegiance and in whom do we place
our faith and trust, jesus' answer takes on a significantly
different meaning. when we are faced with the rising conflict of
caesar vs. jesus and caesar vs. God, we are forced to ask the
question, "whom do i serve? in whom do i trust?"
essentially jesus is saying, "if you serve caesar, then give
to caesar. but if you serve God and God alone, then give to God."
or as dorothy day once put it, "when we give everything that
belongs to God, then there is nothing left for caesar."
for as christians, we cannot serve both God and Mammon. both God
and Caesar. there can be only one "Son of God." only one ruler
remembering the ten commandments
And they were not able in the presence of the people to trap
him by what he said; and being amazed by his answer, they became
jesus' answer to the question of payment of taxes is as curious
as it is fascinating. why did he choose to answer the question
in the riddle-like way that that he did, instead of just giving
a straight-forward answer? a clue comes from both place and
place: jesus is in jerusalem, the people of israel's political
capital. and he is not just here on business, running some errands
that need to get done. its passover time and that means a celebration
of political liberation and independence for the people of israel.
it also means, with his satirical entrance into the city on a donkey,
mocking caesar's grand entrance on stallion complete with entourage,
that he is heading straight into the situation that will put him
face to face with the powers that be.
in the midst of such political intensity, jesus needs to be extra
careful lest he get nailed to the cross too soon. he's got a plan
in mind and there are still some things that need to be done. his
time is not yet, but it is coming. a straight-forward answer is
what his questioners wanted. "say, 'no' so that we can get you
executed by rome." jesus gives a riddle-like answer to steer clear
of the roman authorities (being gentiles, they wouldnt have been able
to pick up on all the nuances of his reply), while also making sure
his jewish audience wouldnt have missed a beat.
people: its important to keep in mind who is asking the question.
the scriptures say it is the "scribes and chief priests" who are
asking him the question. folks who would have known the law to a
T. had a tax collector, peasant revolutionary or blind beggar asked
him the question, chances are he would have given a different answer
with the same message. but he takes the route that he does to
"silence" his questioners because they are supposed to be the most
rigorous upholders of the law. this is where jesus gets them
caught in a bind.
jesus hearkens his hearers back to the very first commandment of
the two tablets: thou shalt have no other gods before me.
"gods," for israelites living in a society in which there was no
difference between religion and politics, was not only Baal, but also
Pharaoh. not only Golden Calfs, but also Golden Thrones. God was the
people of israel's King. and the kings of the world were other
people's gods. when God boomed from heaven that the people of israel
shall have "no other god" before him, he was demanding their sole
and exclusive political allegiance.
this is made clear when the people of israel demanded to have a
human king rule over them 1 Samuel 8. God feels betrayed and
But when they said, "Give us a king to lead us," this displeased Samuel;
so he prayed to the LORD . And the LORD told him: "Listen to all that
the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they
have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought
them out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods."
jesus' answer to the question of taxes was crafted specifically for
the "scribes and chief priests." having boasted of their careful
observation of the law, it would have been embarrassing to admit that
they were more likely serve caesar than god. more likely to pay taxes
verse 26 sums up the response to jesus' answer: it was subtle enough
to go above the roman's heads, jewish enough to communicate his position
and orthodox enough to keep the orthodox followers of the law "silent."
"yes, it is as you say"
Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. And they began to
accuse him, saying, "we have found this man subverting our nation. He
opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king."
So Pilate asked Jesus, "Are you king of the Jews?"
"Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied.
no jew walked away from this drama confused. everyone knew what jesus
had just done. he had played the game with the scribes and chief priests
and had won. and in doing so, had made it loud and clear that for the
people of israel, there was only one God, Lord and Savior; and it was
certainly not the guy who put his face on all those coins.
that jesus' audience would have understood his response to the question
as advocating tax resistance is made evident in jesus' trial before
pilate. standing before the vice-president of Rome, the scribes and
chief priests out him for his anti-imperial teachings and actions. they
claim three things--that his actions have been subversive, that they
include tax resistance and that he claims to occupy the place that
herod and caesar already did, that is "king of the people of israel."
all three accusations cannot be separated from one another. all of them
are a part of jesus' treasonous program of "the kingdom of God." the
kingdom of God was a movement of poor people organizing themselves
into autonomous communities of radical economic sharing and nonviolence
following the teachings of torah and jesus. these communities claimed
independence from rome and its tyranny and celebrated its leader jesus
as its president (that is, king), rather than caesar.
the titles jesus is given, "messiah" "christ" "king" "lord" "son of God"
are all royal title of political leadership. they dont mean jesus is
divine or that he will die for your sins so that you can go to heaven.
they are titles that caesar owned and that the first christians stole
in order to make a point of who jesus was and who he opposed. its like
if jesus lived today and we called him "president jesus" or "jesus,
commander-and-chief." no one bears those titles but the president. and
to claim otherwise would imply revolution.
when jesus is standing before the mighty empire, the jewish political
leaders tell vice-president pilate what jesus has been up to. subverting
the empire, opposing taxes and claiming political leadership.
pilate wants to hear it from jesus' mouth. "are you the king of the jews?"
he asks? are you guilty or innocent of these claims.
"yes, it is as you say."
guilty, jesus answers.
had jesus not been guilty of any of these accusations, he wouldnt have
had any trouble saying so. jesus is not known for his cowardice.
but he didnt' deny them. he calmly and defiantly accepted them.
jesus then gets sentenced to abu gharib treatment. he is tortured and
executed by the word of the vice-president. the empire has no problem
executing those that threatens its power.
and if there is any mistake as to why the empire found it necessary to
execute jesus, all we have to do is lift our eyes a little higher,
above jesus' royal crown of thorns, and read the sign stating his
treasonous actions and claim: this is jesus, king of the jews
where to go from here
as the war raged on, so did my bible studies. and as each bomb detonated
and killed 40 more people, i grew more and more determined to understand
what i found was astounding. and gave me hope. "render unto caesar" no
longer angered or discouraged me, but it became my rallying cry.
render unto caesar, indeed. that is, if you serve caesar.
the numbers of the iraq war are impossible to comprehend. 4 years,
hundreds of billions of dollars, 100,000 iraqi deaths, 4,000 US
soldier deaths, land and rivers that have been permanently
pollutated from industrial bombs and missiles, thousands locked away
in prisons, hundreds being beaten and tortured, millions of lives
experiencing the unholy wrath of a unrighteous god.
i could not support that. any of that. i was a christian. and that
meant, i had to follow the slaughtered lamb, not the idolatrous beast.
living in a mennonite community, im around alot of folks who agree
with me--the war in iraq is not God's will. it is unholy and it is
wrong. it is a sin.
many of these people are pacifists. they go to iraq on with christian
peacemaker teams, they read books about "the nonviolent coming of God",
they pray for the undoing of this awful mess we've created, and they
display a love and humility i aspire to embody one day.
but tragically, there is little talk of taxes and our complicity in
the violence we pray will be healed.
i dont understand that kind of logic. i dont know how genuine pacifist
christians could pray for the war to end, for state-sanctioned
executions to halt, for tortored prisoners to find healing, and for
farmers in poor countries to find economic stability (as millions of
tax dollars are funelled to giant transnational agribusiness
corporations in order to make sure the US has the lowest prices on
the world market), and still also send off a check to the US
government to fund its projects and adventures around the world.
my prayer is that as we seek to be more faithful and nonviolent christians
and as we delve into the scriptures to shed light on our communities,
we will come to the conviction that it is now time to give nothing to
caesar, because everything, our allegiance, our faith and our money,
belong to God and God alone.
peace and courage to you,