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Jesus and Taxes

Dr. Fred Baltz | May 7, 2021 

The Tribute Money (Le denier de César) by James Tissot

Summary: Jesus’ statement about giving tax money to Caesar is far from a blanket approval of paying all taxes, and carries a more profound meaning than people realize if they don’t know the context of his words. 

The Deadly Trap

…they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor. 21 So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God. 22 Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” 23 But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, 24 “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” 25 He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 26 And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent. – Luke 20:20-26  (See also: Mark 12:13-17 and Matthew 22:15-22) (ESV)

Anyone who begins to read even one of the four Gospels soon realizes Jesus made enemies. It’s not that he set out to do that; it resulted from his words and actions. Anger and jealousy against Jesus led some of his own countrymen to plot his death. Jewish leaders in Judaea at this time did not have the political authority to put anyone to death for a crime. That is the verdict of the majority of scholars today. Only Roman authority could inflict capital punishment. Knowing this, some Jesus-haters planned a trap for him. In their minds it would accomplish one of two things. It would either cause many of Jesus’ followers to lose confidence in him, or it would bring about his death by Roman law for political subversion.

Is it Lawful…? 

The place to set a trap like this was in public, in full view, where people could see and hear Jesus. The trap itself took the form of a question. “Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” Now that’s the kind of question a teacher of the Law should be able to answer. It is an important question yet today. It involves real life, not abstractions. Any question beginning with “Is it lawful” was a question to be taken seriously. Traps work because the prey is unsuspecting and walks into the trap. 

Their plan was this: if Jesus should answer yes, thousands of people who desired to be free from Roman tyranny would see him as a weak-spined Roman sympathizer, a coward who was afraid to speak up against unjust authority as John the Baptist had done. Patriots throughout the land would reconsider all those good things they had heard about Jesus. His reputation would be tarnished to say the least.

If Jesus should say no, he would immediately find himself charged with a capital crime against the Emperor himself. His opponents knew it, and they hoped Jesus wouldn’t realize the malicious intent in asking. Those who asked this question would likely be the very same people who reported Jesus to the Romans immediately after hearing an incriminating answer from him.

Even if Jesus simply refused to answer the question in this lose/lose scenario, there would be a kind of hollow victory for his opponents. They would have silenced Jesus, embarrassed him in public. But Jesus gave them an answer, and it didn’t mean what it is so often taken to mean today. To really hear Jesus’ answer, we have to step into the context of First Century Judaism in the biblical land of Judaea.

The question beginning: Is it lawful… means: Is it lawful according to the Law of Moses, the Torah. All Jews were to honor God and his Law. According to their own Scriptures, could they lawfully participate in paying tribute money to other nations, especially to the Romans who oppressed them and used the money to fund injustice? It would be that same Law that Jesus would now use to confound his opponents.

Show Me a Denarius 

Jesus asked them for a coin so that he might illustrate the point he was about to make. They gladly provided it as they listened for a concrete answer to go with this tangible coin. Notice that Jesus did not have such a coin. He had done what he called his disciples to do as he proclaimed the Kingdom. He gave up wealth. His needs and those of his disciples were provided by others: 2 …some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means. Luke 8:2-3. Judas Iscariot was the steward of this contributed money. (John 13:29)

The coin was most probably a Tiberian denarius, a day’s wage. And this is where the Law of Moses comes in….“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them…” (Exodus 20:4) 

On that coin was the raised image of Tiberius Caesar. One could easily believe that the coin itself was an idol in every sense of the word. Even worse, blasphemous lettering around the perimeter of the face of the coin said Caesar was a god.

Front side of a Tiberian denarius with a raised image of Tiberius Caesar
Back side of a Tiberian denarius with  Livia Aureus as Pax personified

Tiberian denarius with the head of Tiberius on the obverse. Notice the letters DIVI near the forehead on the perimeter of the coin. This means that the Emperor was considered a god. The reverse shows Livia Aureus as Pax personified. (Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Should a faithful Jew have such an object in his possession? Every Jew knew that in the outer precinct of the Temple money changers sat at their tables so that no currency like this would enter the holy courts for offerings of any kind. The Roman money would be changed for money that did not bear the marks of idolatry. (See the discovery of a biblical stone weight for paying taxes at the Temple)

The very fact that Jesus’ opponents had such a coin in their possession suddenly reflected upon them negatively. But Jesus hadn’t answered yet. He directed everyone’s attention to the coin: “Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” (v. 24). The coin was currency, and really belonged to Tiberius Caesar. It was a medium of exchange, but it was the property of the emperor. His questioners answered: “Caesar’s” (v. 24). 

Given this context, Jesus’ words “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” really might be paraphrased this way: ‘Send the idolatrous coins back where they came from, and get them out of your hands. Have nothing to do with them.’ That’s the way Jesus was living; he practiced what he preached. This is a very different meaning from: ‘Yes, you should pay your fair share of taxes, because it is your duty.’ That is how many have understood it, but a number of New Testament scholars including N.T. Wright believes there’s more here.

Jesus had more to say, just as the Law had more to say. “…and to God the things that are God’s.” (v. 25). Jesus’ opponents and any bystanders knew what that involved— 

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” – Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (ESV)

Jesus moved the focus of this discussion back where it belonged, on the things of God. Now it was for his opponents to give up their attachments to idolatry and find a higher way to live. They were supposed to know that. And loving the Lord with all one’s heart, soul, and might would never involve seeking to destroy a prophet, let alone the Holy One of God now among them.

Jesus had given an answer to their question that could not be taken as politically or legally damning, nor could it be taken as a sell-out of his fellow patriotic Jews. No one could fault Jesus for his answer to this question, not Jew nor Gentile. Instead, his answer had its way of convicting those who heard it. Jesus’ opponents not only failed to get Jesus into their trap, they came out looking insincere themselves, in need of a lesson in Torah priorities. No one could do anything else than respect Jesus for his answer. That’s why the Bible says they were amazed. (Are taxes only a modern burden?)

Golden calf idol on display in the Louvre
Golden calf idol, Louvre. (public domain)

What More Does the Bible say about Taxes?

There’s more to be said about Jesus and taxes. A short, often overlooked story found only in Matthew (17:24-27) is about whether Jesus the Son of Man truly owed taxes, or was like the kings of the earth that are not expected to pay them. Jesus sent Peter to catch a single fish, and in its mouth was a coin. Fish are attracted to shiny objects. Someone in a boat had lost a coin and this fish had found it. But the fish was caught in a miraculous manner, immediately biting on Peter’s hook with tax money inside. So neither Jesus nor Peter toiled for this coin; it was “found money”. The point: Jesus’ followers are not to give unnecessary offense to those in authority by holding back taxes, but make no mistake, the Son of Man is in no sense less of a king than any ruler on earth!

“What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free.” – Matthew 17:25-26 (ESV)

In his Letter to the Romans Paul writes that believers in Jesus are to cooperate with the authorities whenever that is possible for them to do. That includes paying taxes. They are to see the authorities as ideally an extension of God’s rule in the world for purposes of good.

Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. – Romans 13:5-7 (ESV) 

Who is Caesar Now? 

There can come times when believers must not support the work of civil government. The practice of hiding Jews before and during WWII is an example of righteous rebellion against evil in the form of government. You know this: Jesus did not simply say to pay all taxes because it is your duty. His words go much deeper than that. Loving God with heart, soul, and might could under some circumstances mean disobedience, rather than obedience to government.

When does that situation arise, where is that line not to cross, when believers cannot comply with the demands of a civil government? We don’t expect it. We hope we never have to see it. But loving God with heart, soul, and might in a changing world requires you to keep on thinking.

TOP PHOTO:  The Tribute Money by James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum. (public domain)
NOTE: Not every view expressed by scholars contributing Thinker articles necessarily reflects the views of Patterns of Evidence. We include perspectives from various sides of debates on biblical matters so that readers can become familiar with the different arguments involved. – Keep Thinking!

Hiding Behind The Supreme Court Won’t Stop Beto O’Rourke’s Crusade To Punish Orthodox Religion

In addition to showing the left’s trajectory on religious freedom, O’Rourke’s comments also reveal why conservatives are faring so poorly on the LGBT front of the culture war.

Hiding Behind The Supreme Court Won’t Stop Beto O’Rourke’s Crusade To Punish Orthodox Religion

Oct 17, 2019

In 2003, the Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia made a rather prophetic statement in his dissenting opinion in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), a Supreme Court ruling that struck down anti-sodomy laws across the country. After excoriating the majority for simply waving away the long-held notion that sodomy was a form of sexual immorality that the state had a legitimate interest in prohibiting, Scalia wrote:

One of the benefits of leaving regulation of this matter to the people rather than to the courts is that the people, unlike judges, need not carry things to their logical conclusion. The people may feel that their disapprobation of homosexual conduct is strong enough to disallow homosexual marriage, but not strong enough to criminalize private homosexual acts — and may legislate accordingly. The Court today pretends that it possesses a similar freedom of action, so that that we need not fear judicial imposition of homosexual marriage. … Do not believe it.

In other words, Scalia was declaring, “It’s not within the nature of courts to remain neutral on moral issues. By declaring that the government can’t prohibit homosexual acts today, the court is guaranteeing that the government will be celebrating homosexual acts tomorrow.”

A mere 12 years later, the Supreme Court, via Obergefell v. Hodges, declared every state prohibition against same-sex marriage unconstitutional, with Justice Anthony Kennedy justifying the majority’s opinion by lauding the beauty of homosexual relationships. While Scalia’s words did indeed prove prophetic, they were not perfectly so.

Legalizing gay marriage may have been taking the court’s logic to the next logical step, but it wasn’t the logical conclusion of declaring that the state can’t punish those who engage in homosexuality. Rather, the logical conclusion of the court’s judgment in Lawrence is saying the state must punish those still clinging to the former orthodoxy.

O’Rourke Shows Left’s Trajectory on LGBT Issues

This is something presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke demonstrated in a recent CNN forum on LGBT issues. When Don Lemon asked him if churches and religious organizations that oppose same-sex marriage should lose their tax-exempt status, O’Rourke replied with a firm “Yes.”

Then O’Rourke explained his position by stating, “There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break for anyone or any institution, any organization in America, that denies the full human rights and the full civil rights of every single one of us. So as president, we’re going to make that a priority, and we are going to stop those who are infringing upon the human rights of our fellow Americans.”

While one might dismiss O’Rourke as an outlier, it’s worth noting that his response met cheers from the audience and tepid disavowals from a few of his fellow would-be Democrat nominees who couldn’t sufficiently explain why they disagreed, indicating the former congressman’s position is more mainstream among leftists than we might think, even if many on the left recognize it’s not wise to state that view publicly.

Quite simply, O’Rourke’s plan to tax religious groups opposed to same-sex marriage is not merely the hard-left pandering of an unserious candidate trying desperately to bring his poll numbers above negative-400 percent. It’s the logical conclusion of the illiberal philosophy embraced in Lawrence.

Yesterday the state said homosexuality is neutral. Today the state says homosexuality is good. Tomorrow the state will say opposing homosexuality is bad and must therefore be punished. While O’Rourke’s position may be too hot for the eventual nominee to embrace right now, don’t be surprised if it becomes the official platform of the Democratic National Committee the moment it becomes clear they can win the presidency while giving churches, synagogues, and mosques the sin tax treatment.

In addition to showing the left’s trajectory on religious freedom, O’Rourke’s comments also reveal why conservatives are faring so poorly on the LGBT front of the culture war.

While most Americans would probably describe their general approach to human sexuality as “live and let live,” most Americans also intuitively understand that the “live and let live” doctrine gets complicated when people’s sexual practices and identities follow them into public places. When that messiness arises, both conservatives and progressives have the chance to convince people that their respective solutions will get things tidied up. Why, then, are conservatives losing so many of these battles for the hearts and minds of the general public?

The Folly of ‘Live and Let Live’

To answer that question, consider transgenderism. “Live and let live” flies out the window the moment a man identifying as a woman shows up in the ladies’ bathroom and makes the women in the room uncomfortable. Likewise, how do you solve the problem when public schools demand that teachers use students’ preferred pronouns and some teachers object?

Progressives promise to clean up this mess by carrying their beliefs to their logical conclusion. Transgenderism, they argue, is a perfectly valid identity the state should celebrate and defend. And because it harms people to have their identity rejected, the state must therefore compel others to acknowledge it — thus, force institutions to have transgender bathroom policies. Force taxpayers to subsidize transgender surgery. Fire teachers for refusing to use students’ preferred pronouns. Follow Canada’s example and remove children from their parents if they refuse to embrace their kid’s trans identity.

Conservatives, however, have shown little willingness to follow their own principles likewise to their logical actions. By and large, we assert that transgenderism is, at best, a phase and, at worst, a form of mental illness, so it should follow that the way to clean up the mess is to use the state’s power to hinder those who would do physical and psychological harm to those struggling with a false sense of identity. Yet we are largely unwilling to urge the state to do this.

We aren’t willing to say that mothers who shove their supposedly gender-nonconforming children in front of TV cameras should have their children removed from their homes. We aren’t using the power we have in red states to pass laws promising revoked medical licenses and perhaps even jail time for doctors who prescribe puberty-blocking drugs to minors and chop off perfectly functional sex organs. When trans students show up at schools and demand that teachers use their preferred pronouns, we aren’t willing to say, “The solution to this problem is to forbid males from coming to school dressed as females and vice versa while they get the help they need.”

In all of this, we refuse to clean up the “live and let live” mess by carrying our beliefs to their logical conclusion, which frequently convinces the undecided public that they should probably side with the people who will. That’s why Sen. Elizabeth Warren didn’t consider it political suicide to cheer the bravery of a 9-year-old girl living as a boy. That’s why we’re losing.

Conservatives Need More Than a Supreme Court Ruling

It is, of course, important for conservatives to keep defending those dragged into court for refusing to accept the new LGBT orthodoxy. And God bless those florists, bakers, and educators who have refused to acquiesce to the state’s demands, but not everyone has the mettle or the ability to wait five years for a favorable Supreme Court ruling.

For their sake, it would behoove conservatives to remember that you don’t win culture wars by refusing to fight until you get to the courthouse steps. Likewise, it’s also worth remembering that those who lose culture wars will eventually lose the constitutional protections in which they’ve sought sanctuary.

Sure, O’Rourke’s vindictive tax policy would likely be ruled unconstitutional by today’s Supreme Court. But the more comfortable our culture becomes with the idea of destroying dissenting churches via the power of taxation, the less confident we should be that future justices will maintain today’s understanding of the First Amendment. After all, if the Supreme Court, high on elitist zeitgeist, can stick its hands into the void and invent a constitutional right to abortion or to marry anyone, it can also invent a constitutional right to a clean conscience, which can only be preserved by silencing those repentance-preaching pastors and priests.

Quite simply, conservatives need to win converts to prevent progressives from devouring us. And that won’t happen if we refuse to carry our beliefs to their logical conclusions. So at the risk of rekindling the Ahmari-French debate, when conservatives express discomfort with the concept of obscenity laws, see drag queen story hour as a “blessing of liberty,” and won’t scream in defense of gender-confused children who are being abused by the people who are supposed to protect them, we aren’t clinging to our first principles. Rather, we’re forgetting the very first principle — namely that earthly governments are instituted by God to punish the wicked and reward the good in order to give us a peaceful and quiet life.

Because of this, we shouldn’t hesitate to use the state’s power to defend ourselves and our children from the kind of metastasizing libertinism that rots every brick of the public square it touches. If we don’t, as the journey from Lawrence v. Texas to Beto v. Traditional Christians, Jews, and Muslims shows, those who have gotten comfortable using the state to impose their perverse morality on us won’t tire of doing so any time soon.

Hans Fiene is a Lutheran pastor in Illinois and the creator of Lutheran Satire, a series of comical videos intended to teach the Lutheran faith. Follow him on Twitter, @HansFiene.
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