Thoughts on Proper 24A: Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. Text of a Sermon preached in All Saints’ Chapel, Sewanee

Roman denarius from the time of Jesus

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap [Jesus] in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. (Matt. 22:15-46)

The Pharisees and the Herodians (a strange combination of opposites indeed,[i] but let’s not go there today)—the Pharisees and the Herodians ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

The “taxes” to which they refer (as Matthew’s Greek, following Mark, makes quite clear) aren’t a matter of taxation in general, but tributum capitis, the poll- or head-tax, a form of levy that was particularly offensive to Jewish sensibilities because it involved “numbering” God’s people—something that, if you know your Bible, you may remember King David had tried to do, and got into very hot water over it (2 Samuel 24 cf. 1 Chron. 21). So—is it “lawful” (the Greek means “permitted”, that is, “permitted to a faithful Israelite”) to pay Caesar’s head tax or not? That’s the question, and in the politics of Our Lord’s day it was a hot button issue, a very hot potato. There were groups around him who took both sides of the question, and who, moreover, got pretty angry with those who didn’t agree with them. There certainly wasn’t much “dialogue across the aisle” going on here. More precisely:

  • If Jesus’ says, “it is permitted”, then he aligns himself with the Sadducees, who were perfectly willing to co-operate with the pagan Roman Empire of which Israel was then a part, provided the empire left them free to worship as they chose. He’d also be aligning himself with biblical heroes like Joseph, who’d served the pharaoh of Egypt, with Daniel, who held a top job in pagan imperial civil service, with Esther, who was queen to a pagan emperor, with Ezra the Scribe, who among other things oversaw the rebuilding of the Temple with funds provided by the pagan emperor Cyrus (Ezra 3.7), and of course with the prophet Jeremiah, who told Jewish exiles in Babylon to “pray for the good” of the pagan city where they now found themselves (Jer. 29:7).
  • If Jesus says, “it is not permitted,” then he aligns himself with the zealot rebels of his own day, which included many among the Pharisees. He also aligns himself with heroes like Judas Maccabeus and his family who rebelled against the pagan ruler Antiochus Epiphanes, and with freedom fighters like Judas the Galilean, who, according the historian Josephus, only decades before Our Lord’s lifetime had “incited his countrymen to revolt, upbraiding them as cowards for consenting to pay tribute to the Romans and tolerating mortal masters after having God for their lord” (War 2.118).

All of which is to say, Jesus’ questioners are putting him on the spot!

Our Lord responds with what is formally a request for clarification and information. “Show me the coin used for the tax,” he says, and then when they do so, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” But of course the request for information is really a rhetorical trap. “The emperor’s,” they say. Indeed, they can say nothing else. That, after all, was precisely what many of them disliked about the coin. What then? Disliked or not, the emperor’s head and inscription meant that it was the emperor’s coin, and according to ancient understanding a ruler’s coinage was his property. The trap springs. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s.”

Jesus’ words are in their context quite unequivocal. However much the inhabitants of Judaea may dislike it, if they are using Caesar’s coinage, as they clearly are, then they can’t escape Caesar’s authority and the obligations that entails.

Had Jesus ended his answer at this point, he would simply have been aligning himself with the examples of Queen Esther, with the prophet Jeremiah, with Daniel and with Ezra the Scribe—the examples to which I just referred. But Jesus doesn’t end his answer there. He adds, “and to God, the things that are God’s.”

The form of Our Lord’s expression evidently implies a degree of analogy. We are to pay Caesar what Caesar is owed, and we are also to pay God what God is owed. Unlike Judas the Galilean, Jesus does not, apparently, see a contradiction here, and that in itself is important. According to Jesus, it’s possible to be a good citizen of the pagan empire and a faithful servant of God.

But there is surely more. The basis on which Our Lord has said that “the coin used for the tax” is owed to Caesar is that it bears Caesar’s image. What then bears God’s image, so that it should be owed to God? No Jew who knew anything at all about his or her religion—certainly no Pharisee and surely even no Herodian—could possibly not know the answer to that question. As it said in Genesis, they themselves bore God’s “image” (1.26)—not, be it noted, by virtue of being Israelites, but by virtue of being human.

In other words, they owed tribute coin to Caesar, because the coinage belonged to Caesar. But they owed themselves to God, because they themselves belonged to God.

So—they have asked Jesus a question about their relation to the Roman Empire and are doubtless all set not only for an argument about that but also, and more importantly, to complain about him to whichever group his answer seems most likely to offend. And he has indeed answered their question. But in so doing so he has used its form to challenge them with an altogether deeper and more dangerous question of his own, a question about their relationship to God. No wonder, “when they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away”!

Our Lord’s response to the Pharisees’ and Herodians’ question has been subjected over the course of Christian history to various interpretations.

  • The early church focused on the fact that our whole duty is owed to God, and that our duty to the state is an entirely proper though nonetheless subordinate part of that.
  • Protestants at the time of the Reformation, however—and notably Martin Luther—saw it as conveying the message that God rules the world through two realms or kingdoms: the secular or political authority that is to rule over us as regards physical, external things, and the spiritual authority that is to rule over us in matters of the spirit and the heart.
  • And most recently a number of biblical scholars have seen Jesus’ words as a thinly veiled invitation to rebellion, wherein he makes common cause with those who would throw off the yoke of imperial Rome. “Give to the emperor what you owe to the emperor!” means, “Fight him with fire and sword! That’s what you owe him! Home rule for the Judeans!”

Briefly, and by way of conclusion, let me say that I regard the ancient catholic view as right. Our Lord is very clearly saying that there is no part of our lives that is not owed to God, and that our proper duty to the state is a part, albeit a subordinate part, of that debt. We are, as St Paul puts it in his Letter to the Romans, to pay “taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due” (13:7).

That does not, of course, mean that Our Lord or St Paul or the prophets of Israel in whose line they stand, have no critique of the power of the state, or place no limits on its right to be obeyed. Quite the contrary! They certainly have such a critique. Its basis is the prophetic claim, “the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our ruler, the LORD is our king; he will save us” (Isa. 33.22), “the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1.14). On that basis, they challenge all human power structures.

They do not, however, challenge them by attempting to dismantle them or replace them with other human power structures (“Home rule for Judaea!”) but by consistently confronting them with the truth about their origin and purpose. Their origin is that God permits them. Their purpose is to serve God’s glory by promoting God’s peace and God’s justice. They must not therefore pretend to worship and serve the biblical God, the God of Israel, unless they are concerned about justice (including international justice) here and now. For so long as they attempt such concern, they may do well. As soon as they forget it, they stand condemned and their days are numbered, not because human wisdom or courage will put an end to them, but because God will do so. To put it another way, the prophetic tradition subverts the “powers that be” by insisting at every point that they do their job. This is its burden, and consistently emerges at every point where we examine it.

As for the Reformation view that there are “two realms” or “two kingdoms”, I think it simply mistaken. Our Lord is NOT saying that one part of me belongs to the State (that is, the material or cultural or external part of me that deals with the kingdoms of this world) and the other part to God (that is, my spiritual, personal, and inner life). Such a view is no doubt very convenient to states and governments that wish, in the affairs of the world, to be obeyed by their citizens without question. But it is hardly the view of Scripture.

As for those modern exegetes who claim that Our Lord is here advocating rebellion against Rome, “home rule for Judaea!”—those who see him invoking the very war that would in A.D. 70 lead to devastation for the Jewish people and the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple—they too, I believe, are quite wrong. To treat Our Lord’s words as a call to replace one human power structure with another human power structure is entirely to miss their point. Which means, more importantly, that it is also to miss the way in which, as critique, those words continue to challenge those who live under structures of government vastly different from anything that could have been envisaged or imagined by those who wrote the books of our New Testament. For if the Lord is truly king, then even twenty-first century presidents and prime ministers elected (at least in theory) by western processes of post-Enlightenment democracy still need to remember that they govern only by God’s will, and that the purpose of their governing is to promote God’s peace, God’s justice and God’s gifts of well-being and life for all their subjects. If they forget those things, then they too stand condemned and will fall, as surely as did any arrogant King or Caesar of antiquity. For God is not mocked.

[i] For discussion of these and other details about this narrative in the gospels, see further Christopher Bryan, Render to Caesar (Oxford University Press, 2005) especially pages 43-46.


Christopher Bryan