Recently, I had the remarkable experience of dining in the dark. Absolute, pitch black darkness. Darkness of such depth that opening your eyes was actually painful to me as my pupils probably dilated beyond anything they had done before, trying in vain to capture the slightest bit of light so as to make the world around me visually comprehensible. And as I have thought about this experience, I have realized that I was, for that brief period, exposed to another world to which I previously had no access – the world in which the visually impaired live and move and have their being. It was a world I could not fathom before this experience.
A Roman in first century Judea was in a similar situation. He was surrounded by a world filled with Jews and Jewish hopes and throbbing with Jewish expectations. A world in which there were objections – violent at times and repeated – to what most peoples considered unobjectionable.
In his speech in Acts 5 Peter mentions a Judas the Galilean who opposed a tax. This was at or around the time when Jesus was born, when Joseph and the pregnant Mary went to Bethlehem to be registered. This was not the only occasion on which Jews revolted over the issue of taxation.
No other province of the Roman Empire ever had such an issue. And the questions we must ask ourselves are: Why were the Jews opposed to being taxed? And why did the Pharisees and Herodians ask Jesus about this? And what is the meaning of Jesus’ counter-question and his final answer?
Now let’s get this clear, we all are opposed to being taxed! If the Income Tax department were to announce that they were raising the tax exemption limit, I reckon there is not one person here who would complain. If they announced a reduction in the taxation rates across the board, there would be celebrations galore!
But some of the Jews were violently opposed to being taxed. Why? I must tell you that we have been misled. The New Testament has three different words that are often translated with the English word ‘tax’. In this case it is the word κῆνσος from which we get the word ‘census’. In fact, from the fact that this tax involved the payment of only one denarius, or a day’s wage for an average worker, we can conclude that this was not a way of filling the coffers of the Empire. Rather, it was an issue of counting the people. No one would give two denarii when only one was required. So by counting the denarii the Emperor would know the number of people.
Once we realize this, we can understand the Jewish sentiment by reading Exodus 30.12: “When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the LORD a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no plague will come on them when you number them.”
The ransom was to be paid to God. However, in a Roman census, the money obviously went to Caesar, not God. Some Jews concluded that they were still under Roman oppression because Jews were paying the census money. And so whenever the Romans initiated a census, there was a Jewish revolt – no exceptions!
So we know now why some Jews were violently opposed to the census. They concluded that a census by a Gentile ruler violated the command in Exodus 30.12. There is more, but that will come out a little later. Now we have to ask ourselves why the Pharisees and Herodians asked Jesus about it.
We have to realize first that the Pharisees and Herodians were opposed to each other. The Pharisees did not like Roman rule and decried Herod’s Edomite heritage. The Herodians supported Herod’s rule and therefore Roman rule since Herod was a vassal king.
A sharp person like Jesus quickly smelled something fishy when these two groups came together to interrogate him. But they asked him about the census. Why?
What about Jesus would have led them to do this? We should not think of the account in Matthew 17, which was concerning the tax paid to the temple, which would have gone, therefore, to God. Thus far there is no explicit reference in Matthew’s Gospel to any taxes.
But we have a list of Jesus twelve apostles. And that list includes Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot. This indicates that Simon belonged to the group of Zealots, while Judas belonged to the group of Sicarii. Both were anti-Roman groups, violently opposed to Roman rule.
The presence of these two among Jesus close followers would immediately have raised the issue about the census. Was Jesus sympathetic to the views of these two disciples and the seditious groups they were from? Were they with Jesus because Jesus held the same views about the census?
The Pharisees and Herodians come and ask Jesus a question. They address him as Rabbi, indicating that they expect him to take on a rabbi’s mantle and answer. Hence, the question must be about an issue of religious law.
“Is it right to pay the census or not?” they ask. If Jesus says, “Yes” then the Pharisees would say he is a Roman collaborator. And if he says, “No” then the Herodians would label him a dissenter, one who opposed Caesar’s rule.
Jesus asks them a counter question, which gets to the heart of his response. “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” The second commandment of the Ten Commandments prohibits making of images of God. However, the denarius then in use carried Tiberius Caesar’s bust profile and an inscription that read: “Tiberius Caesar, Worshipful Son of the God Augustus.”
The image and inscription were other reasons for which some Jews were violently opposed to the census. It struck at the very roots of their faith at so many points.
When Jesus finally responds by saying, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” he has done the impossible. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, he has emerged having shattered both.
The Herodians cannot complain because Jesus has said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” and according to them the coin belonged to Caesar. In fact, the coin would have been a constant reminder of Caesar’s rule over the Empire. So, from their perspective, Jesus has said that it is okay to pay the census.
Unfortunately, this is how most Christian interpreters view what Jesus is saying. This is because we Gentiles try to understand Jesus as though he were a Gentile, when we know that he was Jewish.
But the Pharisees would have gotten two more levels of meaning. First, they would have realized that Jesus was saying, “This image and inscription strike at the very foundations of our faith. According to our faith, the whole world, the whole universe belongs to God. And so nothing belongs to Caesar. Caesar’s rule and God’s rule are exclusive. You cannot have both together. You either say that Caesar owns the coins and deny your faith in God or you say that God owns everything and deny Caesar the right to hold a census.”
Only this can account for the charge leveled against Jesus in Luke 23.2: “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king.” The Pharisees understood what Jesus was saying and they used it against him when they brought him before Pilate. In fact, they twisted Jesus’ words and made it apply to all taxes and not just the census. But they could not have done this had Jesus not given them some ammunition to play with!
Second, the Pharisees would have understood that Jesus was alluding to the opening chapter of Scripture, in which humans are said to be the image of God. Looking at the coin Jesus asks, “Whose image is this?” And then he concludes, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” The obvious question, left unasked, is, “If this coin bears Caesar’s image, then where can we find God’s image?”
Then from the narrative in Genesis 1 we can conclude that all humans are the image of God. And so what Jesus is saying is, “If this coin, bearing Caesar’s image, can be considered to be the property of Caesar, then humans, bearing God’s image, are the property of God.”
In other words, the question originally asked has been rendered nonsensical because Caesar himself, being a human, belongs to God. How then is he appropriating for himself things that bear his image? Caesar, being human, belongs to God, and therefore possesses nothing.
Now it is important to step back and actually see the context once again. This passage is not about the taxes we are burdened with such as income tax or professional tax or sales tax or value added tax. It is blatantly incorrect to understand Jesus supporting the payment of taxes or opposing it based on this passage.
The passage is about a method of carrying out a numbering of the citizens of a nation. The most commonly used method was to collect a small piece of currency for the simple reason that you would never over count when you ask people to cough up money!
And frankly it is not about the money eventually. As we have seen the denarius was the daily wage of an average worker. It was not a huge prohibitive amount.
What this passage is about is simple: To whom do humans belong? Do humans belong to the king or the country or the government?
According to Exodus 30, the census amount was paid when the person was counted, “a ransom for his life at the time he is counted.” Why? Simply because were it not for God’s provision, the person being counted could have been dead the day before or a week before! He is alive and ready to be counted not because of the king or the country or the government, but because of God.
The census practice is a simple step of faith by which the Jew proclaimed, “I am alive today by the grace of God.” The same practice was conducted by the ancient rulers by which they proclaimed, “Everyone numbered in this way belongs to me.”
The divergence of these two perspectives is like the difference between my daily experiences and the one I had when I dined in the dark. Unless experienced, neither can comprehend the other.
And hence, the Herodians withdraw thinking Jesus has said it is okay to pay the census money when Jesus has actually done the opposite. He has said, “Counting must be done by the owner. Humans belong to God. And so, only God can do the counting. Counting of humans as done by Caesar, is an affront to the reign of God.”
Give to God what belongs to God.