In which Jesus doesn’t answer the question:
Is it lawful for us to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?
But Jesus perceived their craftiness, and asked them, “Why do you tempt me? Shew me a penny. Whose image and inscription does it carry?”The above passage has so many interpretations (literally hundreds, and those differences range back to the earliest days of Christianity) that I am not going to attempt one myself. Besides, I don’t really have one. I can explain the passage (which is what I hope to do here) but I do not grok its implications. Jesus at his cryptic best is a nut I cannot crack.
They answered and said, “Caesar's.”
Then Jesus said to them, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things which are God's.”
What has been called the Tribute Episode appears in the three synoptic gospels (at Matthew 22:15–22, Mark 12:13–17, and Luke 20:20–26) with a few minimal differences that I’ll explore where they arise. But a word of warning: I’m going to mix and match and I’m not always going to tell which Gospel the line is from. This is partially because too many verse notations makes for hard reading, partially because I’ll deal with a lot of verse fragments, and partially because they don’t matter. If you wish to look them all up, I’ve already said where they come from.
The scene is Jerusalem in the days immediately prior to Jesus’ execution, and right in the midst of a series of ‘hostile’ questions (e.g. by what authority do you do these things? And what of the wife with seven husbands?). The question of whether to pay tribute to Caesar is hostile because paying taxes to a foreign government, especially one led by a pagan and idolater, has already caused a number of uprisings in first century Judea and will cause more, including the one that finally results in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70ad.
The structure of the questioning is probably the most interesting part of the episode, so I’m going to explain it first. What we have here is an episode of what has been called “Rabbinical forensic interrogation” (that won’t be on the final) and was a well-known form of argument that runs essentially like this:
a. someone asks a Rabbi a question
b. If that question is ‘hostile,’ the Rabbi asks a counter question
c. the questioner answers the Rabbi, which exposes the weakness of the first question
d. The Rabbi’s concludes a teaching based on that answer
You can see it at work in Luke at the beginning of Chapter 20:
a. Priests: By what authority do you teach these things?
b. Jesus: Was the Baptism of John from men or God?
c. Priests: We will not answer you
d. Jesus: Then I won’t answer you, either.
There are going to be two parallels between this passage and the tribute passage: structure and the fact that in neither case does Jesus answer the question*.
The structure of the episode is easy to examine:
a. Priests: Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?
b. Jesus: Whose image and inscription (is on the coin)?
c. Priests: Caesar’s
d. Jesus: Then give Caesar his things, and God His things.
But it’s the fact that Jesus does not answer the question that needs to be examined.
I mentioned that the setting was in Jerusalem. Jesus is teaching near the temple when he’s approached by a group of men. Luke calls them “spies,” Matthew and Luke both say they were Pharisees (or their disciples) and Herodians. The Herodians were partisans of Herod, the Roman puppet ruler, with all the Romanized attitudes that go with that. Their presences is what is going to set up the trap (“to catch him in his words”) that this group tries to spring on Jesus.
But they don’t start with the trap, they start with a bit of praise: all the writers note that they make the same claims:
They call Jesus ‘Master’
They say that he teaches Truth
They say that he does not ‘regard the person of men’ i.e. he does not pay respect to ‘greatness’
Now a lot of people think the questioners were just being slimy and sucking up or trying to put Jesus off his guard by saying those things, but they weren’t. Rather, those statements are part of the trap: By calling Jesus “master” they are forcing him to play rabbi** – this means that he will have to answer the question or be publicly humiliated. By saying that he teaches the truth of God, they are forcing him to rely on the scriptures for his answer (they will do the same with the word ‘lawful,’ by which they will limit his answer to Moses). And by saying he treats all equally, they are cutting off any “Caesar is special” arguments. Then they finally bring out the question: Is it lawful to pay tribute or not?
Herein lies the trap: The question is a yes or no question. Relying on the Law (capitalized) the answer is presumed by “society” to be no – there is simply nothing in Moses that authorizes paying taxes to a hostile power***. But if he says a flat-out no, he alienates the Herodians (the government) who will have him killed as a rebel. On the other hand, if he says a flat-out yes, he alienates the people who just proclaimed him king****. If he refuses to answer, he humiliates himself and shows that he is not a Rabbi. The trap is complete, and it is obvious to Jesus and to everyone around him: this is not a question of law, it is a battle of wits. Matthew says that Jesus perceived their wickedness, Mark says their hypocrisy, Luke their craftiness. Doubtless all were true.
Jesus responds by calling them hypocrites (Mark only) and asking to see a tribute coin. He then points to it or holds it up, and asks whose image and “superscription” was on the coin. This is the retort question to the hostile question, and by asking about those two specific things, he is alluding to the ‘lawful’ answer.
The image is the obvious thing. Jews were absolutely forbidden from making images, especially of gods, and they had rioted and forced the government to back down previously over statues placed in the city. They did not have images on their coins. Most did not even consider it lawful to carry such a coin through Jerusalem, and those coins were not permitted in the temple proper (thus the need for money changers in the Court of the Gentiles). The image on the front was of Tiberius; the reverse had Livia, the wife of the previous Caesar, Augustus. Both images were guaranteed to offend the Jews right down to their sandals. Ye shall make no graven images made the very coin itself unlawful.
The superscription is less obvious to us, but the Jews knew what it said. Obverse: “Tiberius, son of the god Augustus.” Reverse: “Pontifex Maximus” (or high priest). If the idea of the images were offensive and unlawful, how about the idea that Caesar was the son of a god, and that he was the high priest of all the people under his control? Paying taxes to Caesar admits the payer is under Caesar’s authority, but according to Rome, with that control comes religious duty. So did the Law of God, which forbade images and forbade the Jews from accepting a pagan high priest, allow them to pay taxes to Caesar?
On the other hand, the Denarius was minted in a mint owned by Tiberius out of silver owned by Tiberius. In short, this coin was legally the property of Caesar (which is why it was the only coin tribute could be paid in). That will play into Jesus’ ultimate answer. But I do want to point out one preposterous thing about the whole episode: here is the Son of God, the creator of the world and all the silver in it, holding in his hand the stamped image of a man who likewise claims to be the son of a god. How Jesus did not burst out laughing is beyond my understanding.
After the obvious retort that the image and inscription are Caesar’s, Jesus tells them to give Caesar what is his and to God what is his. And the people were amazed.
Now, why were the people amazed? Not because of the great wisdom of the answer itself (like us, they probably had little understanding of its implications), but because the answer a) avoided the trap, b) gave the Pharisees nothing to accuse him of, c) gave the Herodians nothing to accuse him of*****, d) avoided the humiliation of not answering, and e) exposed the hypocrisy of those who were not really interested in an answer at all. The crowd knew the game and the stakes, and they saw that Jesus pwned the Pharisees.
But how is it not answering the question? Because the question was one of taxes, and Jesus made it one of property. The coin was legally Caesar’s: so giving it to him was just. But if one gives to God what legally belongs to him, what is left for Caesar? Nothing, of course. The Jews belong to God and could in no way agree to the claims of Caesar represented on the coin. To know that it is a non-answer, one must only ask the obvious followup: what is Caesar's?
As I said, I do not understand all the implications of that, and based on the fact that there are so many interpretations, neither does anyone else. But it does help to at least understand what Jesus was *not* saying, which is usually what people say he was saying.
* Jesus was very adept at not answering the question (see: woman caught in adultery, the). This is not because he didn't know the answers, but because the question was not asked honestly. We should take that as an example.
** It is important to remember that they did not consider him a rabbi – that’s the whole point of all the questions about his authority.
*** Rome is a hostile power in Judea, on the order of the Chinese militarily occupying America. What kind of a quisling would pay them taxes?
**** he will also look the coward, but we should not make the mistake of assuming that he’s afraid of them. Remember, by the end of the week Jesus will be dead anyway. And what’s more, he knows it.
***** This did not stop them, of course. Luke, who is the only gospel writer to include that one of the reasons the Herodian came was "so they might deliver him to the governor" later notes that among the accusations of the Jews against Jesus was, "We found this fellow... forbidding to give tribute to Caesar" (Lk 23:2).