So they watched Him, and sent spies who pretended to be righteous, in order that they might catch Him in some statement, so that they could deliver Him to the rule and the authority of the governor. They questioned Him, saying, “Teacher, we know that You speak and teach correctly, and You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But He detected their trickery and said to them, “Show Me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” And He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were unable to catch Him in a saying in the presence of the people; and being amazed at His answer, they became silent. (Luke 20:20-26 NASB)
How would you have liked to have been the “spies” sent to pretend to be righteous by the religious leaders, trying to trap the teacher who embarrassed them? It’s sort of like the SEALS sending out the regular army after an enemy who defeated them. Good idea…not so much. They start out with puffing Jesus up, trying to put Him in a bind so that He couldn’t appear to be preferential to any; “…You teach correctly, and You are not partial…”, that no matter what He teaches the truth of God. As if He’s really impressed by hearing that. But it does set up the question well.
The question is about paying taxes. The question is asked in the Temple courts where offerings are collected and sacrifices are offered. In a very real sense, the people are “double-taxed” and it’s a big deal to them. These people make up the audience. But there are a few problems with the question. First off, the coin used for Temple transactions is a “drachma” not a “denarius” (see Matthew 17). This isn’t a big deal, they can be exchanged easily enough right there in the Temple courts (at least until Jesus drove out the money changers), or Jesus can find them in the mouths of fish when needed. Yet one coin is not used for the other purpose.
The question being asked by one in possession of a denarius is somewhat ironic. Essentially they are asking whether to give to the occupying government the money they require from that which is used to conduct business. The drachma isn’t used to conduct business much. Since the temple exchange rate never works in the people’s favor, it’s a losing proposition for merchants to take them in trade. And if the merchant isn’t a Jew, they’ll have trouble exchanging them at all. Best for all concerned to use Roman coin. And so our questioner has a denarius in the Temple courts, something he clearly will not be giving to God.
But Jesus’ answer is that we are to “render” or “give what is owed” to both Caesar and to God. There is a sense of obligation in the word, whether of debt, reward, or retribution. The person to whom whatever is given has a right to it. In other words Jesus is saying that Caesar has a right to receive taxes. But He also says that God has a right to receive from us. In fact, the right to receive is similar enough in both cases Jesus mentions them together. The challenge is whether or not to pay one or the other, and Jesus is insisting on paying both. There is something we owe back to God, something which He has a right to receive.
Jesus doesn’t mention what we owe back to God. It’s either obvious or assumed by some sort of context we’ve lost. I think it’s obvious. There are plenty of “giving” or “stewardship” teachings available, so I don’t think I need to delve into it here. But I will say that for those to whom it seems like God is “taxing” us, they’re not far off. Jesus clearly says that God has a right to what He asks us to return to Him. To withhold from God is often taken less serious than withholding from the government. But that’s just “money”.
The fat of rams, the first born, these things are not what God requires, says Micah. But rather He requires me to do justice, to love kindness (chesed), and to walk humbly with my Him. I think most of us would rather just pay Him off, honestly. This other requirement is a lot more invasive, and requires more of me than money. This Creator, Savior, and King wants my time, my attention, and my intent. What’s really left for me at that point? Nothing. He wants all of me. And I am to “render to God the things of God”. I’d much rather hold back and look for the deductions, credits, and adjustments to income. Instead my Master asks me to forego the balance sheet, and live entirely off the income statement; to own nothing and be entirely His. What do I do with that, when I’m one of those who would rather be taxed?
What’s your view through the fence this morning?