The question about paying taxes. 22:15-21


In 22:15-40 Matthew records a series of three trick questions put to Jesus by the religious authorities. They are questions which seek to show Jesus up, even entrap him. The first question, which is our passage for study, concerns the payment of taxes to the Roman government. Jesus' answer reveals something of the mutual responsibilities a believer has toward both God and the secular state.

The passage

v15-16a. Matthew says the Pharisees were behind a plan to snare Jesus with a question over the poll tax. In 6AD Judas the Galilean led a revolt against Rome over a tax census. True Israelites hated the tax because it admitted slavery to Rome and therefore, dishonored God. The Pharisees obviously thought that they would have Jesus trapped with their question. If he supported the tax, he would alienate the common people. If he rejected the tax, he would be committing treason against Rome. The Pharisees opposed the tax, while the Herodians, supporters of Herod and thus Roman sympathizers, supported the tax. Thus, they teamed up to trap Jesus.

16b-17. This extended piece of flattery aimed to put Jesus in a position where he had to answer their question. As a man of "integrity" and not easily "swayed by men", he would have to answer their trick question. The question was, on the surface at least, a theological one. "Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar", in the sense of, is it a godly thing to do? Caesar here means Tiberius. "Caesar" was now the common title for the Roman emperor.

v18-20. Jesus knew well their deceit and so instead of a theological treatise he decided to employ their own tactics. The tax would normally be paid in Roman coinage. With the inscription "Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus" on one side, and "high priest", pontifex maximus, on the other, religious Jews tried to use the coinage for tax purposes only. Jesus obviously didn't carry this coinage around with him, but a Herodian would happily carry it.

v21-22. In his answer, Jesus bypasses all the known and expected answers. Give God what is due God, and give Caesar what is due Caesar. Jesus' reply left his questioners dumbfounded.

Balancing heaven and earth

The Jews understood that they owed some allegiance to their pagan overlords, since in the end, all authority is derived from God, cf. Prov.8:15, Dan.2:21, 37-38. Yet, paying tribute was more in keeping with God's people in exile than residents of the Davidic city of Jerusalem. The Jews were the people of God, not the people of Rome. Even more so, if Jesus were the messiah, political independence from Rome was an obvious consequence of messianic deliverance.



Jesus' answer moved into a totally new quarter. The kingdom Jesus comes to inaugurate, his new community, must render both to Caesar and to God. For most Jews this is an amazing idea, one the apostles came to understand and apply, cf. Rom.13:1-7, 1Pet.2:13-17. Of course, there may be times when the secular power will claim rights which belong only to God. In this situation the disciple must honour God before the State, cf. Act.4:19, 5:29. None-the-less, in one short sentence Jesus lays down a simple principle to cover the schizophrenia of living in the world, while not being of the world, cf. Jn.17:14-16. Jesus tells us how to survive with one foot in heaven and one foot on earth.

Western culture, and thus the church, is powerfully influenced by Platonic thought - the dichotomy between spirit and matter, good and evil, light and dark, truth and falsehood. Only in recent times have we started to think laterally. We are beginning to understand that truth is in tension. For example, we are beginning to understand that God is sovereign and humanity is free; that we are socially responsible (socialism, social justice) and at the same time free individuals (capitalism, free enterprise). These seemingly opposed ideas are best seen as truths in tension.

The sacred and secular dichotomy is a perfect example of this problem. It is not helpful to see the spiritual life as good and true, and the secular life as evil and false. The rule of the church is not somehow sacred and good, while the rule of the state somehow secular and evil (or at least less than good). Both church and state serve the one God, even when they don't realize it.

We are children of this age and of the age to come. This age, although corrupted by sin, is still "good" - a beautiful creation by a loving God. It is good to share in the wonder of God's creation and it is good to share in its responsibilities. It is good to "fill the earth and subdue it", to rule over it; it is good to order the world for the benefit of all creation. It is similarly good to know and serve the living God, to rejoice in his joy, to share his blessings and submit to his rule. Both paths are necessary and thus it is good to "give to Caesar what is Caesar's", and it is good to give "to God what is God's."


1. Why were the Pharisees trying to trap Jesus?

2. What was the trap?

3. Why did the Jews resist paying tribute to Caesar?

4. Discuss the principle laid down by Jesus in his reply. Present some life examples.

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