Summary: “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
OCTOBER 15, 1999
·First Reading Is. 45: 1, 4-6;
·Psalm Ps. 96:1, 3-5, 7-10
·Second Reading 1 Thess. 1:1-5
·Gospel Matthew 22:15-22
In our Readings these past weeks, namely the Parables of the Two Sons (Matt.21:28-32), the Tenants (Matt.21:33-46), and the Wedding Feast (Matt.22:1-14), our Savior had practically denounced the Jewish elders. They emerged in these parables as the discontented son, the evil tenants and the ill-fated guest, respectively. Now we see them embark on their first counter-offensive with a very shrewd question intended not to enrich their knowledge of taxation but to entrap the LORD. The question is, “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
The gravity of this offensive lies in the fact that the Pharisees and the Herodians connive to make it happen. Normally, these two parties are in bitter opposition. The Pharisees are the supremely orthodox, who resent the payment of the tax to a foreign king because it is against their religious convictions. On the other hand, the Herodians belong to the political party of Herod, king of Galilee, who owes his power to the Romans. For the moment, however, their differences are forgotten so as to succeed in eliminating our Redeemer.
Before we proceed to the LORD’s response, let us go back in time and examine the context in which the question was asked. During those times, there were, in fact, three regular taxes imposed by the Roman government. First, there was the ground tax, which comprised a portion of the grain, oil and wine, which a citizen produced. Second, there was the income tax, which was 1% of a man’s income. Lastly, there was the poll tax, which had to be paid by every person above 20 years of age (Ex. 30:12; 2 Kings 12:4; 2 Chr. 24:6, 9). This poll tax amounted to one denarius or approximately the equivalent of a day’s wage (Matt. 20:2). This is what the LORD called the “tribute coin,” and this is the tax under contention.
The question creates a real dilemma for it does not only pertain to the justice of taxation, but whether a state under God’s leadership should pay taxes to an earthly foreign king. Therefore, a negative answer from the LORD would bring Him before the Roman government for sedition; a positive answer, on the other hand, would affirm the genuineness of Caesar’s authority, which the Pharisees regard as an offense against the sovereign one true God. Moreover, it would enrage the people who dislike the tax. The challengers believe that either answer would incriminate the LORD.
And how does the Source of Wisdom respond? In reply to the thoughts of their hearts, our Divine LORD rebukes His opponents and labels them as hypocrites. Then He commands them to produce a coin (v. 19), called a denarius stamped with the image of Tiberius, who is the ruling Caesar. And the LORD says to them, "Whose image is this and whose inscription?" Convincingly and boldly, they say, "Caesar’s." Prudently, the LORD responds, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s." The LORD gives a response far beyond the figment of their imagination, proving, once again, that God’s ways and thoughts are far superior to man’s.
The first part of the LORD’s answer reads, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…” It is interesting to note that though He had all the authority and power to oppose established earthly rulers, the LORD refrained from exercising these. In imitating Christ, we are obligated to render to the state whatever material and personal services are required for the common good of society. The Christian, therefore, has a duty to Caesar in return for the privileges that the rule of Caesar brings. Hence, failure in good citizenship is also failure in Christian duty.
The second part of the LORD’s response reads, "Render therefore…to God the things that are God’s,” which is the focal point of the LORD’s answer. You see, the coin bears Caesar’s image upon it and, therefore, belongs to Caesar; man, on the other hand, has God’s image upon him (Gen.1:26-27) and, therefore, belongs solely to God, and that includes a thousand Caesars. As St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:21-22, “But the one who gives us security with you in Christ and who anointed us is God; he has also put his seal upon us and given the Spirit in our hearts.” Most of all, the LORD Jesus gave His life on the Cross to have us render unto God the things that are His. Therefore, where conflict of interest exists, the demands of the LORD must not be compromised but must prevail. In the final analysis, both Church and state or temporal and spiritual realities belong to God so both must work hand in hand for His honor and glory. When in doubt as to what to do, let us imagine the LORD before each one of us asking, “Whose image do you bear?”