Taxes to Caesar


In the days when Jesus lived on this earth, while He was teaching openly in the temple at Jerusalem only a few days before His death, there were many who tried to test Him, to catch Him in something He might say in front of the people. As we are told in the Gospel of Luke: “So they watched him, and sent spies who pretended to be righteous, that they might seize on his words, in order to deliver him to the power and the authority of the governor.” (Luke 20:20) Now, as they might have known beforehand if they had understood who Jesus was, it turned out that He answered them all so effectively that soon no one dared question Him further. But His answer to one question devised by the scribes and priests was particularly remarkable. The question, simply put, was “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar?” (Luke 20:22) They knew that the dilemma posed by this question would be His undoing. It was deliberately intended to put Him on the spot in front of all the people, because no matter how He answered it, He could not win. If He answered “Yes,” then He would alienate the people, who expected that Messiah was coming to deliver them from their Roman overlords; and yet He could not answer “No,” since then He would be publicly advocating treason, and the scribes and priests would only have to call in the Roman authorities to assure themselves that this stranger would never trouble them again.

“Teacher, we know that you say and teach rightly,” they began “and you do not show personal favoritism, but teach the way of God in truth: It is lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar?” (Luke 20:21) Jesus saw through their guile and knew what they intended, yet He remained undisturbed. “Why do you test me? Show me a coin.” When a coin had been produced, He asked, “Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” “Caesar’s,” they answered. Then He said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Luke 20:21-25)

This answer effectively silenced them, as the Scripture records: “But they could not catch him at his words in the presence of the people. And they marveled at his answer and kept silent.” (Luke 20:26) But what was it that caused them to marvel? What did Jesus really mean in saying, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”? Doubtless the people sensed something profound in His answer, and the fact that it was delivered so spontaneously made it quite convincing.

But what did it actually mean? The first part, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” is simple: this refers to the tax. But what about “Render to God the things that are God’s”? What belongs to God? And how do we give it to Him?

I think this second part of Jesus’ answer caused the people to see there was something more to His words, and we should take a look at this part ourselves. For most, it is just not natural to think of an obligation to God in terms as concrete as one’s financial obligations to the government (perhaps because people are not used to thinking of God as someone who is quite plainly real, possessing demonstrable power, such as these people knew Caesar to possess). Jesus’ response to the question of Caesar’s authority is not intended to undermine or deny it, but to put it into perspective by challenging His audience to recognize their greater obligation to God’s supreme authority. His tone even seems a bit condescending, as though He were correcting sadly misguided students. The Pharisees refer to him insincerely as their teacher, and yet like a teacher, He silences them as if saying, “You need to hear from Me regarding your worldly duties? So likewise you need to hear from Me regarding spiritual duties!” They seemed to recognize that in any test or words, Jesus would come across as their superior. Yet these spiritual experts did not recognize the One of whom the prophet Isaiah foretold: “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord.” (Isaiah 11:2) They marveled at what He said, but could only think of saving face, and would not question Him further. These spiritual experts were more concerned about how they appeared to the crowds than about learning their true obligation to God. Furthermore, they were too proud of their own righteousness to believe this man could instruct them. With such an attitude among their leaders, I wonder how many of the people ever considered Jesus’ words fully enough to follow them through to their practical conclusion, so that they might seriously ask themselves, “What, in fact, are we obliged to render to God?”

What, after all, does belong to God? The answer is really quite startling, and the clue to discern it lies in the parallel Jesus draws between God and Caesar, how each establishes his right to ownership. Just as Caesar had his likeness and inscription imprinted on every coin in the land, so God has taken care to imprint His own likeness and inscription on that which is most valuable to Him, in order to ensure unmistakably His claim to that which He values. An earthly ruler, like Caesar, is touched with a most sensitive concern over how much money he has at his disposal, for it is with money that he supports troops, constructs roads and palaces and monuments, ensures the loyalty of his men, and carries out his will whatever it may be anywhere within his territory. Because money is so important to him, he is careful to have all of it coined with his own likeness.

God, who rules from heaven, is touched with a very different concern, however. More than any other thing, He jealously longs after His highest creation: Man. In the book of Genesis, in which the creation of the world is recorded, we read that God, having completed everything save the last, crowning work, “said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27)

What then belongs to God? The answer is really quite obvious with the parallel Jesus is drawing: What, after all, bears God’s likeness and inscription? Is it not man himself? We are created in the image of god, and the very stamp of His character and nature resides in us! What a privilege it is, to be able to walk and stand upright able to talk, able to work with our hands, to be endowed with reason, touched with noble sentiments, to be capable of appreciating beauty and goodness and to feel emotions welling up inside—to share with God more in common than is given to any other created work on this earth. Every man, woman, and child who ever lived has owed his whole life, his whole existence, to God, whether he realized it or not. And yet, while most of us are careful to meet our obligations to earthly governments, we for the most part neglect our duty to God.

I think an unspoken, even unconscious awareness of this neglect caused the hush to fall over the people who heard Jesus deliver this answer in the temple at Jerusalem. The painful truth which these people 2,000 years ago would not admit to themselves, and which we today still deny, is that we have failed our obligation to God.

How then shall we “render to God the things that are God’s”? In the Gospel of Mark, shortly after Jesus had answered them regarding the tax, it says that “one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him ‘Which is the first commandment of all?’ Jesus answered him, “The first of all commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31) Jesus answers the scribe directly from the Mosaic law, with this command containing God’s great requirement of mankind. The scribe then nodded his approval, saying “Well, Master, you have said the truth… This indeed is better than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” To this Jesus answered, “You are not far from the kingdom of heaven.” (Mark 12:32-34)

God is not satisfied with an occasional offering in the offering plate, or a few hours a week spent in a church pew, or anything else that we do as a concession to our sense of religious obligation. He demands nothing less than our whole lives. Our offering to God is not like an occasional tax to be paid—God has imprinted His likeness on our souls, not on our dollars. Although God loves a cheerful giver and even commands us to give to those in need; and though our time at church may be very well spent; yet, it is not the money or the time itself that God is interested in.

For that matter, though we may feel that saying a prayer or singing a hymn is an act of rendering what we owe to God; yet, it is not the prayer or the song that He is primarily interested in either. It’s US that He’s interested in. What, after all, is the money, or the prayers, or the time we spend, or the songs we sing, but just things? And what do any of them mean if we are only trying to keep our religious scorecard up to date? Will these things please God, when He can look straight into our hearts and see that all along we barely even acknowledge His existence? What is prayer, if no communication with God ever takes place? And how can a sacrifice of time or money ever justify us when all along every good thing we have comes from God? Everything we have we owe to Him!

Each of us is a unique individual, created in the image of God and bearing the stamp of His ownership within our very being. God’s great requirement for mankind might be summed up in the following words: “BE MINE. I won’t be satisfied until I know that you love Me with everything you’ve got inside you: all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength; until I know that you are willing to give up everything you have for Me. I have loved you with an everlasting love, and I will not take second place to anything else in your life. And love your fellow man, whom I created in love as I created you.”

In His image. Do we understand or even begin to appreciate what this really means? To be that precious to God, that He would create us in His own image? Do not our very souls persuade us how excellent our Creator is, seeing the sheer excellence of His creation? Why do we, created in God’s own image, defile that image by using our lives for purposes that contradict His nature? Why do we, who bear the stamp of God’s own likeness and character, misrepresent that character, and degrade our own humanity by lying and cheating, indulging in addictive habits, using filthy language, failing to care about our fellow men, even hating our brothers and sisters, being lazy in our work, lazy about our spiritual condition, lazy in our commitments to one another, continually following base and selfish desires … Jesus, what is wrong with us?

Perhaps the scribes and Pharisees would have done well to ask Him just that. But they had built up too many defenses against any possibility of doubting their own righteousness. Jesus once said of them, “How can you believe who receive honor from one another, and do not seek the honor that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44) The crowds who listened to Jesus also failed to understand. They heard Him gladly, but the things He said never quite reached their hearts. They never loved Him enough to come to His aid when He had been betrayed into the hands of those who sought to kill Him. Some of them were undoubtedly among the enthusiastic crowds who shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” when later He was presented by Pilate before the people. He had been beaten beyond recognition and a crown of thorns was pressed down on His brow – the final mockery of the former cries of adulation He had received and of His pretensions to be the coming King prophesied in Scripture. This, it seems, was a spectacle the people loved even more than the one Jesus had created in the temple, and they reveled in it.

However much we think times have changed, people today still have the same basic nature as people did back then. God demands complete devotion from us, as we are earnestly entreated in Proverbs 23:26—“Give me your heart, and let your eyes observe my ways.” But, as the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day, we too easily become devoted to religion rather than devoted in our hearts to God. Like the people who “listened gladly” to Jesus as he spoke in the temple, we can be taken by the spectacle of religion, or even feel very moved by a sermon, while the recognition of Who Jesus is never quite reaches our hearts.

Most of us, Christians and non-Christians alike, fail to appreciate to what extent we are by nature haters of God. We cannot imagine that we believe what we do for anything but the best of reasons. Especially since we are intelligent college students, we fail to recognize that our basic attitudes reflect indifference about the existence of God, and Who He really is, and what He expects of us—that our basic dispositions about spiritual issues are often just habitual responses reflecting choices that we never carefully or honestly considered. Whether we realize it or not, our attitudes are just outward manifestations of what our inward selves had at one time or other actively accepted or rejected, with or without our conscious approval.

It is not a matter of the intellect, but of the heart. I am willing to bet that most of us who find Jesus Christ uninteresting do so because we never really willing to regard Him as anything more than an idea. Something in our basic attitudes predisposed us to reject the actual person of God before we had even given Him a chance. It is no surprise that such an attitude is so universally prevalent, since the Bible tells us that we are by nature alienated from God. Anyone who would honestly confront the person of God must acknowledge that this is so, and such an admission necessarily implies a recognition of sin. Most of us are not ready to recognize this in ourselves, and are even less ready to recognize that there is a God Who wants to do something about it. We are created in the image. We are precious to Him beyond all else, and He wants to redeem us. If this sounds like something you would dismiss as foolish, irrelevant, or something you’ve heard before, ascribe it to a built-in reaction—basic attitudes tend to reinforce themselves. You probably haven’t yet seriously considered the person of Jesus Christ.

As the Scriptures themselves attest: “Where is the wisdom of the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. The Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness; but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Corinthians 1:20-25)

And what is foolishness if not love? And what greater weakness is there than to love someone? And God loves us with a perfect love, as it truly said in the Scriptures: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

So what then shall we render to God? We owe everything to him, and the mark of His ownership is evident in our very selves, which bear His image. If still we cannot find it in ourselves to give our entire lives to Him, then consider this motivation—that He gave everything for us. What He asks of us is not unreasonable. Consider that He loved us enough to die for us, to send His Son to endure the cross. Why do we hide from our Maker? Why do we forget Him, when He thinks of us continually? As He tells us through the prophet Isaiah: “can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have graven you on the palms of my hands.” (Isaiah 49:15-16)

No longer shall our duty to God be something burdensome, but we shall gladly render to God what we own Him, His one great requirement of mankind. Considering His love for us, is it not pure joy to love Him back? To love Him with all our heart, strength, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, who bear His image.

Lord, our God, we love You. Make us like You are, as You intended us to be from the first, when You formed us in Your image. Take our lives and make them holy as You are, and acceptable to You. We gladly give You ourselves, for it is all we have to give. Amen.

Tom Erickson
© 1990 The Yale Standard Committee