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  • In Matthew 22:15–22, Luke 20:20–26, and Mark 12:13–17, the question "is it right to pay taxes to Caesar?" is perceived as a "trap" by both Jesus and the Pharisees who are putting the question forth.
  • Jesus answers this trap question with the reply: "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's".
  • All three Gospels then record the Jews as being "amazed" at this answer.

If "Render Unto Caesar" is the equivalent of "yes, it is right to pay taxes to Caesar", I fail to see how this answer would be "amazing" to the Jews at all (i.e. there's nothing "amazing" about saying you should pay your taxes).

So my question is: what arguments are used to explain the amazement of the Jews in this passage, by those denominations of Christians who interpret the words "Render Undo Caesar" as Jesus answering in the affirmative to the question of whether it is right to pay taxes?

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What lies below is certainly not the only way to interpret this scripture, but it is one way I find extremely compelling, and to my knowledge, provides a reasonable historical understanding.

This passage in scripture is built on a long foundation of culture and history, which is largely lost on a modern audience.

First, a reminder about the immediately apparent context: Jesus had just entered the temple and driven out the merchants.

Also remember the larger context, that the Jews are living under occupation, and they resent having to pay taxes to a foreign ruling power, and they are eagerly awaiting a messiah to come and rescue them from this oppression--some are expecting a military leader to lead a rebellion against Rome. Practically all Jews are expecting some sort of political leader (there wasn't a clean distinction between politics and religion then, as there often is in our minds today).

So when Jesus was asked about paying taxes to Caesar, it was a loaded question, not really about taxes, per se, but inviting Jesus to take sides on the issue of open rebellion.

But that's not enough to fully demonstrate why Jesus' questioners were amazed. As N.T. Write explains briefly in Jesus and the Victory of God, Jesus' words "Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God" mirrors a revolutionary phrase, which would have been well known in contemporary Jewish culture of the time.

A hundred years earlier, during the Maccabaean rebellion, Mattathais made a famous death-bed speech, which concluded with "Pay back the Gentiles in full, and obey the commands of the law"--a command to, according to the law of God, rebel against, attack, and destroy the pagans.

Jesus mirrored this popular "call to arms" to say, in essence, "Give Caesar what he deserves." But he said it in the context of paying taxes. Was Jesus demanding that Jews pay taxes? Was he demanding that they rebel against Caesar?

As Wright concludes, He had done neither. He had done both.

This is why they were amazed... and probably incredibly confused.


Here I quote the relevant section of Jesus and the Victory of God, for greater context. I've still edited out a few bits, so as not to make it any longer than absolutely necessary.

The question of tax-money was not simply a trick, designed to frame a charge against Jesus. Jesus' reply, likewise, should not be read simply as a cunning avoidance of the question, still less as a way of shifting the discussion from 'politics' to 'piety'. Tax and Temple, Caesar and God, are the subject-matter.

'We know that you ... show no respect of persons.' This preamble assumes that Jesus is not afraid of Caesar, and so will give the revolutionary answer if that is what he believes. That, at least, is what the questioners assume the bystanders will be thinking.

Jesus' pithy reply encapsulates the larger issues of his own doubly revolutionary kingdom-agenda. He began by requesting one of the relevant coins. This took the initiative away from his questioners, forcing them to reveal their own hand first. The coin bore an image and superscription which were, from a strict Jewish point of view, blasphemous. The image was prohibited (even the cynical Antipas, as we saw, had stopped short of using an image of himself on his coins), and the superscription proclaimed Caesar in divine terms, specifically as the son of a god. Jesus' questioners were thus themselves already heavily compromised by possessing such an object.

Jesus then responded with the famous two-line aphorism: give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God. This has often been taken to imply a neat division of loyalties: state and church, Caesar and God, held in delicate tension. Alternately, the saying has been read as a wry, ironic comment, or, indeed, as a direct challenge to zealotry. But there is reason to suppose that both parts of the aphorism are more subtle, and more closely linked to the issues of Temple, Messiah, and Jesus' whole kingdom-announcement, than those options allow.

Jesus' hearers would have been expecting some kind of signal that he was indeed in favor of revolution. It might be cryptic, but in many political situations coded statements are all that one can offer. I suggest that Jesus deliberately framed his answer in terms that could be heard as just a coded statement, with which he neatly refused the either/or that had been put to him and pointed to his own kingdom-agenda as the radical alternative.

The initial clue is found in a passage probably familiar to Jesus and his audience, if only through the regular celebrations of the Maccabaean heroes at the annual festival of Hanukkah. As the old revolutionary Mattathias was preparing to die, he made a speech to his sons, exhorting them to zeal for the law, and invoking the zealous heroes of old. The speech ends as follows:

Judas Maccabaeus has been a mighty warrior from his youth; he shall command the army for you and fight the battle against the peoples. You shall rally around you all who observe the law, and avenge the wrong done to your people. Pay back the Gentiles in full, and obey the commands of the law.

With that, Mattathias died. The sequel, as we have seen, is that Judas took command, led the revolt, fought the battle, defeated the pagan army, cleansed and restored the Temple, refortified Jerusalem--and established a royal dynasty that lasted for a hundred years. Through Herod's marriage to Mariamne, it was still in existence in Jesus' own day.

Mattathias instructed his sons to give back to the pagans an equal repayment: do to them as they have done to us. The saying is unambiguously revolutionary. The second clause put this in its wider context: obey the command of the law. ... The Maccabaean saying had a double thrust: your duty towards the pagans is to fight them, and your duty to our god is to keep his commandments.

I propose that Jesus' cryptic saying should be understood as a coded and subversive echo of Mattathias' last words. His Temple-action created a context within which his saying would have meant: Pay Caesar back what he is owed! Render to Caesar what he deserves! The words Jesus said would, prima facie, have been heard as revolutionary.

When, however, the words are set in context, they acquire a second layer of meaning. Jesus was not in a classroom giving a lecture, or for that matter on a battlefield urging on the troops. He was facing a questioner with a Roman coin in his hand. Suddenly, a counterpoint appears beneath the coded revolutionary meaning; faced with the coin, and with the implicit question of revolution, Jesus says, in effect 'Well then, you'd better pay Caesar back as he deserves!' Had he told them to revolt? Had he told them to pay the tax? He had done neither. He had done both.

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what arguments are used to explain the amazement of the Jews in this passage, by those denominations of Christians who interpret the words "Render Undo Caesar" as Jesus answering in the affirmative to the question of whether it is right to pay taxes?

The reaction of the Jews to what Jesus said and did were sometimes difficult for those us of raised in a modern secular society to appreciate.

Luke 18:42-43 And Jesus said unto him, Receive thy sight: thy faith hath saved thee. And immediately he received his sight, and followed him, glorifying God: and all the people, when they saw it, gave praise unto God.

Matthew 7:28 And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine:

Luke 5:1 And it came to pass, that, as the people pressed upon him to hear the word of God, he stood by the lake of Gennesaret,

Luke 7:15-16 And he that was dead sat up, and began to speak. And he delivered him to his mother. And there came a fear on all: and they glorified God, saying, That a great prophet is risen up among us; and, That God hath visited his people.

Matthew 9:6-8 But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then saith he to the sick of the palsy,) Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house. And he arose, and departed to his house. But when the multitudes saw it, they marvelled, and glorified God, which had given such power unto men.

The idea that people would crowd together to hear the word of God, that people would react to an event by giving glory to God, or reacting by praising or thanking God seems alien to us today. We see movies and television and are jaded to impressive images which we know are constructed to enthrall us.

These were not simple people amazed by some new entertainment. These were people who were drawn to truth. They saw it in the miracles that were performed and immediately gave praise and glory to God. They were hungry for truth.

When Jesus explained that taxes were to be paid to Caesar, he did more that issue a rule or the clarification of a rule. He delineated the realm of man from the realm of God. The amazement came from the teaching of this distinction as he explained later to his disciples and James wrote about.

John 15:19 If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.

James 4:4 Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.

The amazement was both from the powerful teaching of truth and from the understanding that the truth produced. As an example of the pervasiveness and reaction to penetrating truth:

I was once in a social situation where a gal was relating that she had just finished getting her undergraduate degree in psychology. She mentioned the phrase “inner child” and I must have chuckled. She asked the reason for my reaction and I said there was no such thing as a template of human perfection inside each of us from which we can extract therapeutic remedies for whatever ailments we feel we have. If there were, we might have some idea of how it was formed, where it existed, and how it functioned. I then said that there was nothing to support such a concept other than the wish it were true. She then said, “Well if that is true...”

We all experience moments when we are amazed at the implication of a particular thought. It almost unfolds within our mind. What was unfolding for the Jews was the understanding that the money they all strove for, sought to sustain them, and had come to see as representative of their very existence was an artificial construct administered by Caesar. They had a strong expression of faith in God, but were reminded that their hearts had been drawn to the things of the world.

In a way they were understanding that the might and power of Rome were essentially irrelevant and that they had neglected the more important realm of God.

What was causing the amazement was the understanding produced by the penetration of truth.

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Commentators primarily give two reasons for the amazement:

  • Amazed at the wisdom of his response
  • Dumbfounded and shamed by his response

The wisdom of the response

John Gill writes that the Jews were amazed "at his prudence and wisdom, in answer them, in such an unexpected and cautious manner."1 Adam Clarke explains:

By this decision, Caesar is satisfied – he gets his own to the uttermost farthing. God is glorified – his honor is in every respect secured. And the People are edified – one of the most difficult questions that could possibly come before them is answered in such a way as to relieve their consciences, and direct their conduct.2

The response itself, that is, satisfies the demands of all – Caesar, God, and the People – and the wisdom of this amazes them.

Shamed by the response

Other commentators emphasize that the answer left the leaders dumbfounded, perplexed, and shamed at having been defeated and exposed by Jesus. Ellicott writes:

We can picture to ourselves the surprise which the conspirators felt at thus finding themselves baffled where they thought success so certain.3

Coffman says that "the trap they had devised for Jesus was sprung upon them."4 Poole explains that the response of Jesus forces them to condemn themselves:

Thus our Saviour answers their question so as he maketh them to condemn themselves, if, owning the civil magistrate’s power, they did not give him his rights, and so as neither Caesar nor yet the people had any just cause of exception against him for his words. This answer surprises them, they marvel and go their way, having played their game and got nothing.5

Summary

It seems likely that the amazement of the Jews includes both appreciation for Jesus's wisdom and shame for being disgraced, as Matthew Henry explains:

They admired his sagacity in discovering and evading a snare which they thought so craftily laid. Christ is, and will be, the Wonder, not only of his beloved friends, but of his baffled enemies. One would think they should have marvelled and followed him, marvelled and submitted to him; no, they marvelled and left him. [...] They went their way, as persons ashamed, and made an inglorious retreat. The stratagem being defeated, they quitted the field.6


References:

  1. Gill
  2. Clarke
  3. Ellicott
  4. Coffman
  5. Poole
  6. Henry
  • I can see your point, but I do think my answer encompasses both--the questioners were "shamed" in that they were forced to reveal their compromising position of possessing "blasphemous" coins. In any case, I think this is a good overview answer, so +1. – Flimzy Dec 9 '15 at 10:22
  • @Flimzy That's fair; I can see that. – Nathaniel is protesting Dec 9 '15 at 11:29

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