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Mark 12:17 (NIV) reads:

17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

What is God's that we have to give back to him? Was Jesus referring to tithing?

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In all three accounts, (Matt 22:21, Mark 12:17, Luke 20:25) the wording is almost identical and uses the verb ἀποδίδωμι = (a) I give back, return, restore, (b) I give, render, as due, (c) mid: I sell (Strong).

BDAG is a little more detailed by providing five basic meanings for this word:

  1. to give out, give, give up, yield, eg, Matt 27:58, Rev 22:2, Heb 12:11, 2 Tim 4:8
  2. to meet a contractual or other obligation, pay, pay out, fulfill, eg, (a) of wages or produce, Matt 20:8, 21:41, Acts 4:33; (b) of taxes, Matt 22;21, Mark 12:17, Luke 20:25; (c) of fulfilling various responsibilities, 1 Cor 7:3, Rom 13:7, Matt 5:33, 12:36, Luke 16:2, Acts 19:40, Rom 14:12, Heb 13:17, 1 Peter 4:5.
  3. To restore to an original possessor, give back, return, eg, Luke 9:42, 4:20, Matt 5:25, 18:25, 34, Luke 7:42, 12:59, 10:35
  4. to recompense, whether in a good or bad sense, render, reward, recompense, eg, Matt 6:4, 6, Rom 2:6, etc.
  5. mid: to make an exchange, sell, trade, eg, Acts 7:9, 5:8, Heb 12:16.

Thus, in the opinion of BDAG, ἀποδίδωμι means (in Matt 22;21, Mark 12:17, Luke 20:25) to render taxes as required under Roman law or other things to authorities. This is confirmed by the fact that Jesus' famous answer was in response to a question about paying taxes to Caesar. Paul is more explanatory here:

Rom 13:7 - Pay everyone what you owe him: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

Thus, Jesus' principle recorded in the Gospel can be seen as just one aspect of a broader principle enunciated by Paul in Rom 13. Thus, we may understand that Jesus was saying what to render to various authorities:

  • To Caesar: respect, honor, taxes, law-abiding, etc, Rom 13:1-7.
  • To God: worship (Ex 20:3), honor (John 5:23), love (Deut 6:4, 5, Matt 22:37), obedience (John 14:15, 15:10), Supporting Church ministry (Matt 10:10, Luke 10:7, 8, 1 Cor 16:2, 2 Cor 9:3-14), Being generous to the poor, Ex 23:11, Prov 3:27, 28, 11:24, 25, 14:31, 17:5, 19:17, 21:13, 22:2, 9, 16, 22, 23, 28:3, 8, 27, 29:7, 13, 31:9, 20, Isa 10:1, 2, 58:1-21, Jer 7:3-6, Amos 4:10, Micah 6:8, Matt 23:23, Acts 4:32-35, Gal 2:10, James 1:27, Matt 25:31-46), Hospitality (1 Tim 3:2, Titus 1:8, Heb 13:2, 1 Peter 4:9), Being just and fair (2 Chron 19:6-10, Micah 6:8, Matt 23:23), etc, etc.

Tithing

Tithing was part of the system of financial support under the Israelite economy. It is never mentioned in the NT (except as the practice of punctilious pharisees in Luke 18:12, 11:42, Matt 23:23 and in Heb 7 as part of the story of Abraham) not forbidden (it appears to be assumed in the back-ground at times).

In fact, some of the examples of generosity far exceed the tithe requirement in the NT (eg, Acts 4:32, 36, 5:1, 2, etc).

Therefore, I believe our responsibility to God far exceeds the simplistic requirement of tithing, but requires an entire commitment to His service.

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Mt 12:17: Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

What is it that belongs to God that we need to give back to him? I do not think that Jesus was referring to tithing. In fact, I do not think he was speaking about money at all. In order to get to what he might really be saying, I examined the context of the question that prompted his answer:

  • Verse 14-15: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?”

This question posed by the Pharisees was highly inflammatory considering that the region was under Roman occupation and rule:

From Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers: The question was obviously framed as a dilemma. If answered in the affirmative, the Pharisees would be able to denounce Him to the people as a traitor to His country, courting the favour of their heathen oppressors. If in the negative, the Herodians (on the assumption which seems the more probable) could accuse Him, as He was eventually accused, of “perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar” (Luke 23:2).

On the surface, the question appeared to be about money and the payment of taxes. At heart, the question raised the issue of authority. If Jesus answered one way, he would be seen as endorsing Roman occupation and oppression, if he answered another way, he would be accused of subverting Roman authority. Thus the question was meant as a “trap” for Jesus (Mk 12 :13).

In my opinion, the first part of Jesus’ answer addressed only the superficial issue of paying taxes:

  • Verse 15-17: “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”

The Roman coin bore the image of the emperor and should be returned to the emperor. In wording the answer this way, Jesus side-stepped the question of authority. It is only in the second part of his answer that Jesus would address the underlying issue of authority:

  • Verse 17: “and to God the things that are God’s.”

At first glance the second part of the answer is similar to the first, but it is only so in structure. How can Caesar’s authority be compared to God’s? The incongruity of this comparison would not have been lost on Jesus’ audience. God is the creator of the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1-27), thus all authority in heaven and on earth lies solely with God. Jesus’ answer left them “utterly amazed” (Mt 12:17).

Furthermore, note that before answering the question, Jesus asked:

  • Verse 15: “Why are you putting me to the test?”

These words bring to mind the beginning of his ministry when Jesus was “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil”:

  • Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down... Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” (Mt 4:5-10)

Comparing Jesus’ responses from these two events, if we follow the implications of the words “[give] to God the things that are God’s,” they will lead us to “worship God and serve only him.”

Looking toward the end of Jesus’ life, the issue of authority again resurfaces during Jesus’ trial under Pilate:

  • He [Pilate] entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (Jn 19:8-11)

Jesus refuted Pilate’s authority over his life and reclaimed that authority as God’s alone. After all, it is God who created man in his own image and who “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Gen 1:27 and Gen 2:7). Thus from the beginning to end, Jesus consistently upheld God’s ultimate power and authority over all things. We in turn are called to give back to God the things that are God’s and to “worship and serve only him.”

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The text:

But because he knew their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you testing me? Bring me a denarius so that I can look at it!”

So they brought one. And he said to them,

“Whose image (eikon) and inscription (epigraphe) is this?”

And they said to him, “Caesar’s.”

And Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar the things of Caesar,

and to God the things of God!”

And they were utterly amazed at him.

The parallel here is that Caeser minted the coins, stamping them with his image and putting his inscription -- meaning he wrote his name on the coin.

Here are two of the denarius in question, minted around the time of Christ and in circulation in the region:

enter image description here The inscription reads: CAESAR DICT PERPETVO

Here is a second: Denarius 2

The inscription reads: CAESAR AVGVSTVS DIVI PATER PATRIAE

Thus Ceaser minted the coins in his image and inscribed his name on them. But God made man in his image (Gen 1.26) and put his name on his people (Num 6.27).

Therefore you belong to God even as your coins belong to ceaser.

To interpret this in terms of tithing, e.g. that your coins belong to God, would be a misreading of the text, IMO, and this is not something that would cause the people to be amazed.

What caused them to be amazed was this clear delineation between the sacred and the secular, the things of man versus the things of God. Pay your taxes but live for God.

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Consider Malachi 3:8–9

“Will a man rob God? Yet you have robbed Me! But you say, ‘In what way have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings.

You are cursed with a curse, For you have robbed Me, Even this whole nation.

This makes it rather clear that tithes belong to God, and tithing is simply returning something to its rightful owner.

Jesus's "Give back to God what is God's" is simply echoing this idea.

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