Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?
In his Gospel, Matthew (22:17) tells us that it was the Pharisees and the Herodians who tried to trap Jesus with this question. To understand the trap, it helps to understand the fact that the Pharisees and the Herodians held opposing political views.
The Herodians were supporters of the dynasty of Herod. Herod the Great ruled Palestine from 37 B.C. to 4 B.C. It was one of his sons, Herod Antipas, who was tetrarch, or governor, of Galilee at the time of Jesus. It was this Herod Antipas who beheaded John the Baptist. The Herodians, their fortunes and their politics, were founded in unswerving loyalty to this Herodian dynasty and to Rome. Consequently, they favored appeasing Rome and the payment of taxes.
The Zealot party held an opposing political view. They absolutely refused to subject the people of God to a foreign power. Political independence was their goal. They hated Rome and they hated paying taxes to their government. The political position of the Pharisees was identical to that of the Zealots. The only difference between the political view of the Zealots and the Pharisees, was the fact that the Pharisees did not believe in the use of force to achieve independence.
The Herodians did not like Christ because they saw Him as upsetting the balance of power. The Pharisees did not like Christ because He wasn’t political enough. He did not seem sufficiently interested in political liberation from Rome. Both groups wanted Jesus to declare His political position on taxes. “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” They were absolutely certain that they had Him in an unavoidable trap. If Jesus had said, “Yes, it is lawful to pay the taxes”, He would be conceding that Caesar was the rightful ruler over the Jews, and that position was heretical in the eyes of the Pharisees. If Jesus had said, “No, it is not lawful to pay the taxes”, He would be publicly opposing the Roman government. That was illegal and, as such, He would have been subject to arrest.
Jesus’ response to this trap is nothing short of brilliant. “Show me the coin that is used to pay the tax.” Immediately they produced a Roman coin. “Whose image is on the coin and whose inscription”? The coin that they handed Jesus provided the answer to their question. Since it contains Caesar’s image and inscription, it belongs to Caesar and it is within his power to demand it. “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God”.
We know that God created all things. So ultimately, all things belong to God. Therefore, rendering to Caesar what belongs to Caesar is to render him nothing of our own, since all belongs to the Creator anyway. Jesus gave an absolutely brilliant answer to their trick question!
Worldly wealth, power and prestige are the treasures of Caesar. It was so at the time of Jesus. So too is it true today. The treasures of God are goodness, truth, love and self-sacrifice; and these things are eternal. But while we are here, we do have the responsibility of being good stewards of the many gifts God has given us.
The people of Jesus’ time did not live in a free society. They had to pay their taxes to a hated oppressor, the Roman government. We live in a free society. Our taxes are paid to, and are managed by, people who we elect.
To be good stewards, we have the responsibility of evaluating just how well our elected leaders are managing the resources that we place in their care. Unfortunately, the balance sheets indicate that they have not been doing a very good job. Our national debt currently stands at almost 18 trillion dollars. It took us more than 200 years for our national debt to reach 1 trillion dollars. In 1986, our national debt reached 2 trillion. It has skyrocketed from there.
Most people do not realize just how big the number one trillion is. If you started spending one million dollars per day on the day Christ was born, and continued spending one million dollars per day, every day, 365 days per year, right up to the present day, you still would not have spent one trillion dollars. You would have to go on spending one million dollars per day, every day, for more than 700 additional years before you could say you have spent one trillion dollars.
We have an election coming up very soon. If we are to be good stewards of the many gifts God has entrusted to us, then it is our duty and responsibility to make sure we elect wise and prudent leaders. Jesus said that we are to, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar”, but in our case we are repaying to a government that is of the people, by the people and for the people. Ultimately it is we the people who are answerable to God for the stewardship of our “Caesar”. So we need to get out and vote, it is our privilege, duty and responsibility. And let us pray that God may give us the grace and wisdom to elect wise and prudent stewards.