A delegation of Herodians and Pharisees approaches Jesus and poses this question: Is it lawful to pay the tax to Caesar or not? The poll tax was required of all persons aged 12 to 65 and payable in the amount of a denarius, roughly a day’s wage. The most widely circulated denarius bore the image of the emperor Tiberius, with this inscription: “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, most high priest.”
The Pharisees regarded such coins as idolatrous because of the image and the inscription. They usually arranged for someone else to pay the tax for them, so that they would not have to handle such a blasphemous object. But the Herodians, allies of King Herod who owed his position to the Romans, almost certainly supported the tax.
The question is a trap. If Jesus opposes paying the tax, he makes himself vulnerable to charges of sedition. If he supports paying the tax, he loses face among the people, for whom such taxes symbolize Roman occupation and oppression.
After implicitly pointing out that just as coins stamped with Caesar’s image belong to Caesar, so human beings stamped with God’s image belong to God, Jesus sidesteps the trap: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” With these words, he does not so much solve the problem as define its terms. As Christians we acknowledge duties both to Caesar and to God. Our perennial challenge is to understand, distinguish, and fulfill these duties appropriately.
If we let Caesar stand as shorthand for the state and political authority, then we clearly have duties to Caesar. A basic tenet of classical Christian political thought is that the institutions of government are a gift of God for the common good. So we render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s by obeying the laws, paying our taxes, voting in elections, serving on juries, and otherwise exercising the virtues of good citizenship.
We render to God the things that are God’s when we fulfill the promises and vows of our baptism: by participating in worship on Sundays and holy days, saying our prayers daily, giving generously of our substance for the support of the Church, and, in the words of the prayer book, offering ourselves, our souls and bodies, as a living sacrifice of praise.
We have duties to both God and Caesar. Indeed, part of our duty to God is to fulfill our legitimate duties to Caesar. But God’s authority alone is absolute. On those rare occasions when the demands of Caesar come into conflict with the laws of God, then obedience to God always takes precedence.
Church history bears this out. From the beginning, the Church has honored political authority as instituted by God. But when Roman emperors demanded to be worshiped as divine, the early Christian martyrs went to the lions first. Down through the centuries, such Christians as Thomas Becket, Thomas More, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther King, Jr., have defied political authority in the name of the God to whom all political authority is ultimately accountable.
Today’s Gospel challenges us to reflect on our duties in both the sacred and secular realms. Discerning how to fulfill these duties in new situations requires prudence, wisdom, and sustained prayer for God’s guidance and strength.
Look It Up
For a scriptural instance of civil disobedience, read Daniel 3, with special attention to verses 16-18.
Think About It
What are some contemporary issues in which duties to “Caesar” might come into conflict with duties to God?