Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 11/26/1995
Luke 20:19 And the scribes and the chief priests tried to lay hands on him that very hour, and they feared the people, for they understood that he spoke this parable against them. 20 And they watched him and sent spies who pretended to be righteous in order that they might catch him in some statement so as to deliver him up to the rule and authority of the governor. 21 And 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. 22 Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” 23 But he detected their trickery and said to them, 24 “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” And they said, “Caesar’s.” 25 And 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 unable to catch him in a saying in the presence of the people, and marveling at his answer, they became silent.
Probably the least popular branch of the federal government is the Internal Revenue Service or I. R. S., known to readers of “Snuffy Smith” as “The Infernal Revenue Service.” It was no different for first-century Palestine, except that the intensity of hatred and resentment was infinitely greater, since the taxes were going to an occupying power. Therefore, this question represented the perfect opportunity for the Pharisees to get Jesus in trouble. In reading this exchange we see two things: a conspiracy for the first century, and a commandment for the twenty-first.
The indispensable background for understanding this encounter is the passage we studied last week, referred back to in vs. 19. This whole encounter flows from the Triumphal Entry, which led to the Cleansing of the Temple, which led to the Challenge to Jesus’ Authority, which led to the Parable of the Evil Vineyard Workers, in whom Jesus’ opponents clearly recognized a not so flattering portrait of themselves. They wanted to lay violent hands on Jesus then and there, but could not because of their fear of the people. So instead they sent spies to try to trip him up in front of the people so that he would lose their support and become more vulnerable. As usual, their plots backfire and blow up in their faces.
Why the spies? Because Jesus was on to the leaders. He would have recognized them immediately, and his guard would have been up. So these sneaky fellows come pretending to be “righteous,” i.e., sincere seekers and potential disciples. They begin by trying to butter him up in vs. 21. “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach correctly, and you are not partial to any but teach the way of God in truth.” The hidden implication is, “It’s safe for you to say something really controversial, because we aren’t going to turn you in.” As if Jesus had ever shown any signs of being worried about such a thing! They were hoping to impale him on the horns of a dilemma. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” If Jesus says no, he will be in trouble with the governor, and the spies can denounce him to Pilate as a rebel against Roman rule. If he says yes, he will immediately lose the support of the crowd, who hate the occupation with a passion. Either way, they are thinking, they will be rid of this burr in their saddles, this troublesome prophet with the radical ideas. And they cannot imagine that there is any way out of this dilemma they have created. But once again—surprise, surprise!—Jesus is too smart for them.
Jesus rarely answered questions with a simple, straightforward “yes” or “no,” though how he could avoid it here was hard for his opponents to conceive. But imagine their chagrin when they heard the response: “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” And 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.”
This is not just clever; it is actually brilliant, a typical example of Jesus’ uncanny ability to turn the tables on his enemies. It was a principle of law accepted by the Jews at this time that the sovereignty of a state extends as far as its coins are good, and that the right of coinage implies a right of taxation. So the spies must have known they were trapped as soon as Jesus asked them for a denarius. But what can they do? One of them reluctantly pulls the coin from his purse and hands it over. Ahem. Just whose face and inscription is on this coin? Between the lines of Luke’s text there is suddenly much hemming and hawing and shuffling of Sadducaic sandals and Pharisaic feet. Why, it’s Caesar’s! Oops. Well, then. Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things which are God’s. Oh, my. The fact that the coin was handed over by one of the questioners means that the Jewish establishment has already accepted the legitimacy of Roman rule, the authority of Caesar. Jesus has just cut the whole ground right out from under their feet. The result is that the anger of the crowd at “Render unto Caesar” is deflected from Jesus to their own leaders, who were up to their ears in complicity and collaboration. Wow! Getting into a controversy with Jesus—especially one in which you are insincere and trying to trick him—is a really bad idea.
But there is more to it than that. The head of Caesar on the coin is technically a “graven image.” So what is this Jewish fellow doing with such a coin? Out of deference to fierce Jewish religious feelings on such matters, the Romans allowed special coins to be minted for Palestine with the head left off so that pious Jews could do business without violating their scruples. (This may help explain, by the way, the references in Revelation to the opponents of the AntiChrist being unable to buy and sell without his “mark”—he will apparently be less sensitive to such feelings than Caesar!) So the questioner has not only been forced to out himself as a Roman collaborator, he has also revealed himself as one who loves money more than God. In other words, if you would spend a coin like that on anything, why suddenly balk at paying it in taxes? To the people in the crowd, that would be straining at a political gnat after having swallowed a blasphemous camel!
So Jesus’ opponents, in an effort to get him into trouble with the crowd, have succeeded only in turning its murderous anger on themselves. No wonder they decided to “become silent.” As H. L. Mencken said, “Before a man opens his mouth, it is always safe to assume he is a fool. After he speaks, it is seldom necessary to assume it.” Once again, Jesus has allowed these spies of the Pharisees and the priests to dig their own hole and then fall into it. When the wisdom of man pits itself against the Wisdom of God, can we expect any other outcome?
The first century confrontation is fascinating, but there is a lesson for us in our own century in it as well. And the first and most obvious part of that message is: pay your taxes! Render unto Caesar. If you are going to enjoy the benefits of government, you need to help pay for them. If you like being protected from crooks and foreign armies and having roads to drive on, you need to help pay for these things. If you like having a currency (the coins, the denarii) that is recognized as legal tender so that you do not have to use the barter system, then you have to give some of it back to make the whole system work.
Jesus here foreshadows what Paul will teach us in Romans 13. Government is ordained by God. Even an imperfect government—the only kind we have these days—exists by his permission and wields authority he has given it. The benefits of living under even an imperfect government are great. For the early Christians it was a very imperfect government, the Roman Empire as it descended into corruption. But look what it gave them: the Pax Romana, the Roman roads, a world unified under one language (Greek), all of which were absolutely essential to the impressive success the Gospel had in those early years; and all of which were provided by a government that required the worship of Caesar! The early Christians disobeyed Rome where they had to, but they honored it where they could, and in doing so they were consistent not only with Paul’s teaching but also with Jesus’ hints in our passage today. They understood that even an imperfect government—even a bad government—is better than anarchy. If you don’t believe it, it is because you have never lived under anarchy.
"But what about Hitler or Idi Amin or Pol Pot?" somebody may ask. Could there be a tyrant so evil that Romans 13 would not apply to him? Paul’s instruction is based on the premise that even Rome had a general tendency to punish evil and reward good. What if there were a government that reversed that formula completely? Surely Nazi Germany tempts one to think there could be. The AntiChrist will be such a ruler, if no one else has been. But whether or not there may be exceptions, let us be sure we do not miss the general rule: Our leaders should be honored, obeyed except when they command us to disobey God, and supported by our taxes. Otherwise, we “oppose the ordinance of God.”
Well, the obvious lesson is “Pay your taxes.” Render unto Caesar. But there is another which is maybe less obvious. We are also supposed to render unto God. Render what? To Caesar we render taxes and obedience. What do we render to God? Well, to answer that question let’s go back to the thing which set up the first part of Jesus’ answer: the portrait of Caesar on the denarius. What gives Caesar a right to your taxes? The image of Caesar on your coins. Because his image is on the coin, he has a right to the coin. O.K., then, what bears the image of God? You do. Man himself and woman herself are the image of God. You may need to give Caesar your coin; what you render to God is yourself.
Implicit in the contrast is the principle of limited government. You owe Caesar your taxes, but you do not owe him your soul. You ultimate allegiance is to God, and thus any state that asks for it commits treason against the very God who grants it existence and authority. God has ordained the powers that be, and he permits some pretty corrupt ones to exist at times. But he has preferences about the kind of government we should have. He disapproves of totalitarian government in principle, because it usurps some of his prerogatives. If he approves of limited government, then he favors those forms which support and enable it, such as separation of powers and checks and balances. So we should thank him for the privilege of enjoying the freedoms we have as Americans, and oppose tyranny here and everywhere, and never take our freedoms for granted. God permits totalitarian governments to exist, and when Christians live under them they are to obey them as far as they can. But they should never legitimize their totalitarian claims by obeying them where they overstep their authority and ask us to disobey the laws of God. The Christian has not only the right but the obligation to disobey any law which commands disobedience to God. But we must not do so in such a way as to imply any disrespect for the government’s legitimate authority. There is a fine line here, but we may be required to walk it more and more as our own society sinks deeper into secularism. We must always remember both sides of the equation: render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things which are God’s.
These then are the ground rules: render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things which are God’s. What do we render to Caesar? Acknowledgement of his limited authority; honor; our limited obedience; taxes; prayers for his wisdom that we might live our lives in peace. What do we owe to God? Everything that we have, are, or ever hope to be; our whole selves, body, soul, and spirit; our worship, our adoration, our ultimate allegiance. To each, his own. Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things which are God’s. Amen.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams