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16 They sent their disciples to Him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that You are honest and that You teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You seek favor from no one, because You pay no attention to external appearance. 17 So tell us what You think: Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?(Matthew 22:16-17)

14 “Teacher,” they said, “we know that You are honest and seek favor from no one. Indeed, You are impartial and teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay them or not?(Mark 12:14)

21“Teacher,” they inquired, “we know that You speak and teach correctly. You show no partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. 22 Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?(Luke 20:21-22)

I am of the belief that either a yes or no answer would have gotten him in trouble, If he would have said "No, you shall not pay taxes to Caesar" they would have informed the Romans that he teaches the people not to pay taxes but what if he would have said plainly "Yes, you shall pay Caesar taxes" most likely they would have found something in the Law against him, so rather then to exhort them to pay taxes he tell them to give back what belongs to Caesar.

Would it have been wrong to tell the Israelites to pay taxes to Caesar?
Are there any command against paying foreigners taxes?

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    "I am of the belief that either a yes or no answer would have gotten him in trouble" I think that's true for many of the questions the Pharisee's asked him.
    – Mast
    yesterday
  • 1
    Not that they would find something in the Torah against paying taxes but more likely that he would lose a lot of support from those who would see him as merely a reactionary against Jewish interests. yesterday

4 Answers 4

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The answer to the OP's question is found, in all three records in the following verse:

  • Matt 22:18 - But Jesus knew their evil intent and said, “You hypocrites, why are you testing Me?
  • Mark 12;15 - But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.”
  • Luke 20:23 - But Jesus saw through their duplicity and said to them,

Ellicott sums up the dilemma in his comments on Matt 22:17 -

(17) Is it lawful to give tribute . . .?—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 Cæsar” (Luke 23:2).

Let there be no doubt that Jesus was well aware of the intended trap laid in the question and adroitly avoided it. In doing so, Jesus carefully laid the groundwork for what would later be called the doctrine of the separation of church and state.

In saying this, Jesus banished some strange ideas of the Jews about their attitude to their civil overlords, the Romans. The Jews hated the Romans, but only because the the Jews were subject to the Romans. The Jews had the mistaken idea that because they were God's chosen people, that this gave them the divine right to rebel against any civil government not of their own making.

Effectively, Jesus said this was wrong! He told them to obey the civil authorities within the limits of moral requirements of God (see appendix below). At times, this has proved to be tricky balancing act for Christians since, but that is another question.

APPENDIX - Loyalty to Earthly Civil Government

Here is a summary of the Biblical data about our attitude to civil government.

  • God rules the kings and governors of the earth. Rev 1:5, 6, Dan 2:21, 47
  • Every government is established and exists by God. John 19:11, Rom 13:1, Job 12:23
  • God even uses wicked governments to accomplish His divine purpose. Jer 25:8, 9, Acts 4:27, 28.
  • Christians should pray for those in government. 1 Tim 2:1, 2, Jer 29:7
  • Christians should honor and submit to government and civil law. Matt 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17, Luke 20:20-26, Rom 13:1-7, Titus 3:1, 1 Peter 2:13-17. This explicitly includes paying taxes.
  • There are limits of conscience in obeying governments and laws – our first duty is to God. Dan 3, Acts 4:19, 5:29.
  • A Christian in government service should strive to be the best civil servant possible. Dan 6:1-4, Gen 41:37.
  • Foreigners and strangers (as well as poor) in a country should be subject to the same privileges and protections as others. Lev 19:34, Deut 10:18, Ps 146:9, Jer 7:6, 22:3, Zech 7:10, Mal 3:5.

To the above explicit instructions we may add the implied requirements illustrated in the story of David, Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite in 2 Sam 11, 12.

  • No-one is above the law, including the king. All should receive the same treatment and punishment as appropriate for the crime.
  • Those who deliver judgement messages should not be punished.
  • Foreigners (Uriah the Hittite in this case) are just as important as local residents.
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    +1 due to your contribution but have to disagree on the overall contextual message "Jesus carefully laid the groundwork for what would later be called the doctrine of the separation of church and state." My believe that Messiah was not and will not in the future be anything else then for theocracy (theocratic monarchy), that is either God's way or you are out. as an individual or nation. 2 days ago
  • 3
    @DanielDahlberg - I fully agree - Jesus will establish the only successful theocracy ever. The doctrine of the separation of church and state is only applicable to earthly governments and not divine governments.
    – Dottard
    2 days ago
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I think that there was a question about patriotism and fidelity towards the cherished Jewish cause of treating Romans as aggressors and invaders (quite rightly so) and, thus, also the ensuing general understanding that "we true Jews are only compelled to pay tribute to Caesar, which is on the verge of idolatry, for the Emperor is considered as divine - "divus" - by Romans, and by Hellenic subjects of the Empire even as "god" - θεός. Thus, to urge Jews to pay taxes to the Emperor would have amounted at best to lack of all patriotic spirit and to herald a loathsome conformism; and at worst as a direct invitation to an idolatry. In both cases the questioners would have effectively denigrate and, to use a modern term related to the modern heirs of those pharisees, cancel Him by putting Him to a public shame.

By His answer the Lord demarcated clearly between the earthly, to which also the politics belong, and the heavenly, saying that it is neither unpatriotic nor idolatrous to pay taxes to the Emperor, for those taxes and the Emperor himself are of an earthly dimension and it is just an act of earthly convenience and appropriateness. With such a disposition, that is not any sin. However, it would be both unpatriotic and idolatrous to shun to do so out of religious concerns, for then, through this very stupid fear, they would have reduced the God of Israel to a one with a political agenda and to the level of respect of the Roman Emperor. Thus, the Lord liberates them from this idolatrous fear by telling those words: "Give to Caesar things of Caesar and to God the things of God".

What is at stake here, is the elevated theology that the Lord endorses: the Jews treat liberation of Israel from Roman dominion and re-establishment of truly free and strong Jewish Kingdom as a divine will and mission, and even a divine order. But then, if so, the Romans are absolute evil, and the notion of evil is transferred to a political dimension due to the fact that the notion of good also is transferred to an earthly-political dimension. But the Lord here simply reinforces what He has taught elsewhere: the Kingdom of Israel to be restored is a symbol standing for the Heavenly Kingdom, His only Kingdom (John 18:36), that belongs not only to genetic/ethnic Jews, but to all humanity, for it is the invisible Kingdom that dwells in human heart that is liberated by the Lord from the influence and drag of sinfulness, the drag of original human sin that besets all mankind since Adam's fall. And this Kingdom has no nationality, it belongs likely to the oppressor Romans and the oppressed Jews, who all alike are under the oppression of sin and Satan. Thus the Lord is Savior not only of Jews but also of Romans and all mankind from the fetters and tyranny of sin and death. Exactly for this very message delivered at a synagogue in Nazareth the narrow-thinking Jewish theologians and the people ignited by them wanted to kill the Lord in the very beginning of His mission (Luke 4:17-30).

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  • Thanks for your contribution +1. I will have to disagree. I believe that he doesn't make a demarcation between heavenly and earth I mean money itself is earthly yet Gods order them to pay shekel to the priesthood. 2 days ago
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    @DanielDahlberg Thanks! I have added to my answer to clarify it. 2 days ago
  • @DanielDahlberg - there was something very odd about the shekels used to pay the Temple tax at the time
    – Henry
    2 days ago
  • @Henry Very interesting about the Tyre and Antioch shekels. Do you think that was the problem paying tax to Ceasar? Maybe shape the text from Beged Ivri into a answer!? yesterday
  • @DanielDahlberg - it is an interesting historical issue, but not referred to in the Gospels, so it may not belong in a hermeneutics answer. To me it suggests the Gospel passages may be more about taxation to a occupying power and less about graven images on coins (another historical point is that living Roman emperors were not seen as gods at the time by anyone).
    – Henry
    yesterday
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Yes, it was most definitely a trap, but Jesus saw right through it.

As with most of their questions, the Pharisees weren't asking because they wanted to learn something; they were explicitly trying to get Jesus to say something they could use against Him. Note that in Matt. 22:16 the Pharisees & Herodians--normally foes--are teaming up to try to take down Jesus.

Here's what they had in mind:

  • If Jesus spoke out against paying taxes, the Herodians would witness it and have Him arrested. He could be charged with...ironically...one of the very crimes He was lately falsely accused with (forbidding to give tribute to Caesar--see Luke 23:2). The Pharisees' aim here was to have Jesus put to death by Rome for defying Roman law.
  • If Jesus spoke in favor of paying taxes, the Pharisees could turn the people against Him--maybe even riling up a lynch mob if they were lucky--because they knew the people hated Roman taxes. Notice how often "publicans" and "sinners" are paired in the Gospels - tax collectors were thought of as the lowest of the low.

The Pharisees did not merely want to kill Jesus, they wanted to destroy His movement. If they turned the people against Him they didn't have to worry about multitudes flocking to this Teacher who threatened their power. On the other hand, having Him put to death by crucifixion would be humiliating, and having Him put to death by Rome would intimate that His teachings were opposed by the might of Rome. The Pharisees hoped this would squash His movement and His ideas.

Either way, the Pharisees would win...or so they thought. Jesus did not spring the trap and instead used the occasion to call them to repentance. If you give Caesar what bears Caesar's image and give God what bears God's image...what exactly is it that bears God's image? (see Genesis 1:27) We are to give God ourselves.



Note: As already discussed by Dottard, there was nothing in the Jewish written law that would forbid paying taxes; though many Jews saw everything about Roman rule--including the up-close and personal affront of paying them taxes--as a violation of Israel's Divinely appointed status and sovereignty.

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    Thanks for the editing of my question and the contribution and thanks for shedding light on Lu 23:2 "forbidding us to pay taxes to Caesar" 2 days ago
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Other answers have made the points that the question was a trap, and that either a "yes" or a "no" would have been used against Jesus.

However, there is additional richness to Jesus' response, in that it actually turns the trap back on the questioners. Imagine the sequence of events:

  • First, he asks to examine the object the Pharisees are so worried about
    implying that money has always never been worth his attention
  • Then, Jesus theatrically discovers Ceasar's face on the denarius
    this "money" thing you are so worried about is a literal graven image? Shock! Disgust!
  • Finally, he flicks the coin from himself, saying "give Ceasar's trappings back to Ceasar."
    "This thing is worthless" AND "This thing is of the oppressors"

This short sequence packs an amazing density of messages.

First, on the surface level, Jesus gets to say "pay your taxes" in a way that doesn't offend anyone. If he doesn't avoid the Pharisees' trap, his work will be curtailed, so that's key.

Second, he reinforces his existing messages on money: it's all dross, and not worth your attention. (Not exactly repulsive, more like... a tiresome burden that you should rid yourself of).

Third, he reaches out slightly to the rebellious elements in Jewish society. It's small, but emphasizing his distaste for the Roman aspect of Roman money gives a point of commonality with their distaste for all things Roman.

Fourth and best, he turns the whole thing around on the Pharisees. "Render unto" is not exactly talking about sacrificing something to an idol, but it's not exactly not talking about it either. So now he has implied that the Pharisees paying taxes is idolatry. He, of course, is not invested in money, and so doesn't need to worry about reconciling God with Roman idolatry. Note how the different gospels call them not just evil, but "hypocrites".

Fifth, he has implied that this is a trivial question, and that the Pharisees' greatest concerns are matters of no import. Vaguely like "OK Boomer".

...all of which is an amazing amount to pack into a tiny bon-mot.


One thing I wondered about while answering this was whether it might also be outreach to the Pharisees. They valued learning and cleverness; did Jesus hope or intend that friendly(?) verbal sparring would be an invitation to the Pharisees? Is Jesus' mastery of the arts the Pharisees valued most a subtle proof offered just for them?

I think it's possible and nice to think about, but I can't make a good case that it's true.

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