Render to Caesar what is Caesar's -- but to God -- Render Everything!

Some have gone so far as to cite this passage as discouraging any kind of civil disobedience, even when governments are unjust.1

But this isn't necessarily what Jesus meant with this rather cryptic phrase, as we will find by putting his words back in context.

Jesus' remark occurs in each of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 22:21//Mark 12:17//Luke 20:25).a Jesus is in Jerusalem, teaching in the Temple. He has already come into conflict with the authorities by storming through the Temple, overturning the moneychangers' tables and causing mayhem. In all three Gospels, Jesus' audience includes some hostile outsiders who are deliberately asking tough questions to trip him up. (Mark identifies these outsiders as pro-Roman supporters of King Herod and as Pharisees; Matthew mentions Pharisees.) The Greek word used in both Matthew and Mark is avgreuvswsin, "ensnare" (Matthew 22:15; Mark 12:13).

Luke tells us the outsiders "pretended to be sincere that they might take hold of what he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor" (Luke 20:20). Their first question, "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" (Matthew 22:17; Mark 12:14; Luke 20:22), is the one we are concerned with here--and it is indeed a snare.

If Jesus says "no," that paying taxes is not lawful (in God's eyes, that is--obviously, taxpaying is lawful in Caesar's!), the pro-Roman contingent--the supporters of Herod--will see this as tantamount to supporting civil disobedience, or even revolt, against Rome. Saying that Jews shouldn't pay their taxes would be a criminal offense, and Jesus' preaching in Jerusalem would be over very quickly.

But if Jesus says "yes" -- that it is lawful for Jews to pay their taxes--his Jewish audience will see it as a statement of his approval that they should live willingly and obediently under foreign domination. They might also be concerned that their payment of tribute to Caesar would amount to idolatry, since the Roman emperor was worshiped in their region as divine. So if Jesus answers "yes" to this question, it could seem like he was ignoring the first commandment: "You shall have no other gods before me."

Jesus' actual answer is a brilliant evasion of the snare that his antagonists have laid for him. Instead of saying "yes" or "no" to their question, he says, "Show me the money for the tax" (Matthew 22:18; Mark 12:15; Luke 20:24). They oblige by bringing him a coin. Jesus holds it up and asks: "Whose likeness (Greek, eikoµn) and inscription (Greek, epigrapheµ) is this?" (Matthew 22:20; Mark 12:16; Luke 20:24). To which they reply, "Caesar's"--since Roman coins were imprinted with the name and face of the ruler. Numismatists tell us the coin to which Jesus' request refers was probably a denarius of Tiberius, the reigning Caesar. The coin would have borne, on its obverse (front) side, both Tiberius's head and the legend TI CAESAR DIVI AVG AVGVSTVS: "Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus"

Here is where Jesus delivers his famous answer: "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Matthew 22:21; Mark 12:17; Luke 20:25). It's such a good (and snappy) answer that his antagonists, stunned and defeated, disperse.

The key to understanding this passage--and why it counts as a blow against both parties of detractors--is in grasping the analogy that Jesus is making when he holds up the coin. Seeing clearly what is Caesar's--because he is showing it to them--Jesus' audience is prompted to ask, What, exactly, is God's? If the coins are Caesar's because they bear Caesar's likeness and inscription, then by analogy what bears God's likeness and inscription?

It is this second implied question that modern readers neither ask nor try to answer. But a Jewish audience familiar with the Torah would have quickly recognized what Jesus was suggesting. They would have known it is we human beings who bear God's likeness, for according to Genesis God created man in his "image and likeness" (Genesis 1:26). We also bear God's inscription, for God's law is inscribed as "a sign on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the Lord may be in your mouth" (Exodus 13:9).3

Thus, the import of Jesus' rejoinder is that one may owe taxes to Caesar, but one owes one's very being to God. Whatever civil obligations Jesus' followers might have, they must be understood within the context of their responsibilities to God, for their duty to God claims their whole selves.

The attempted ensnarement of Jesus here and in subsequent episodes was typical of a specific pattern of interrogation, called forensic interrogation, used by Jewish teachers, or rabbis, by the first century A.D.4 A hostile questioner poses a question to a rabbi; the rabbi answers with a counter-question, which the questioner answers; the rabbi makes use of the questioner's answer to refute his initial challenge. When ruling on points of law or halakhah, rabbis thought it necessary to base their ruling on scriptural material. Jesus' questioners in this episode were specifically testing Jesus' authority by questioning him on the law ("Is it lawful to pay taxes?"); Jesus responds with his own question: "Whose likeness and inscription is this on the coin?" Their answer, "Caesar's," gives him the opening to refute their challenge through a reference to scripture, namely, Genesis 1:26 and Exodus 13:9.

That Jesus is really making a point about what should be rendered to God (and not the tax collector) seems rather obvious once the analogical significance of Caesar's coin is perceived. Early readers of Matthew, Mark or Luke would have known from the form of Jesus' questioning to look for a scriptural basis in his answer. Many modern readers, however, will not expect a scriptural reference in Jesus' answer.

In truth, it's really not the fault of the modern lay reader, especially since some of the most widely used modern translations of the Greek words eikoµn and epigrapheµ obscure the connection to the relevant Genesis and Exodus passages.

The Revised Standard Version, which I have been using here, appropriately translates eikoµn as "likeness" and epigrapheµ as "inscription." But the New Revised Standard Version (1989) has obscured the analogy by translating eikoµn and epigrapheµ as "head" and "title," words that do not awaken either of the necessary echoes to the pertinent Torah passages. In other recent translations we find the words rendered as "portrait" and "title" (New Jerusalem Bible, 1985), "face" and "name" (Today's English Bible, second edition, 1992), "picture" and "name" (Contemporary English Bible, 1995) or "picture" and "title" (New Living Bible, 1996).

So, how does grasping this analogy of human beings (who bear God's likeness) and coins (which have the emperor's likeness) help us understand what Jesus is telling his audience? Perhaps more to the point: Does Jesus just want his followers to pay their taxes? Does he expect them to keep politics separate from religion?

If that's all the gospel writers really intended to say, Jesus would have replied simply, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's," and stopped. Nothing more would need to be said. Yet Jesus continues, "and to God the things that are God's."

Jesus allowed that one should render to Caesar what is Caesar's, but what can be said to belong to Caesar when one's entire life belongs to God? While emphasizing the supremacy of religious duties, the passage does not specify the precise nature of a Christian's duty regarding civil taxes or regarding civil obligations in general. The passage does suggest, however, that Christians shouldn't respond to civil issues without considering, first and foremost, their religious duty in the matter.

In other words, when Jesus tells his audience to "render to Caesar" his point is not that they should pay their taxes like dutiful Roman citizens; his point is that they should be rendering their selves to God. When it comes to what people owe God, Jesus is saying, we are all in the very highest tax bracket--this time of year or any other.5

Reference for this article:

Ball, David T. "What Jesus Really Meant by "Render Unto Caesar"." Bible Review, Apr 2003, 14-17, 52.

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