What Jesus did do

 Dear Editor,

Re: Tax, churches and the Bible 

Actually, Jesus did not tell anyone to give their dinarii to brutal Caesar the violent Roman Empire. Consider the sequence carefully, and it is exactly the same in three Gospels’ versions of the incident, Matthew 22, Mark 12 and Luke 20.

Jesus’ enemies among the leaders of the Jerusalem Temple “sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor.” (Luke 20:20)

The governor was Pontius Pilate, who was the man in charge of collecting Rome’s taxes throughout Judea. In that capacity, Pilate dare not brook a popular Jewish rabbi telling his followers not to pay their taxes to Caesar. If Pilate let such seditious behavior pass unpunished, he risked losing his position as governor--or worse. The question posed to Jesus by the spies was carefully crafted by his enemies because they thought for sure they knew Jesus’ answer would be to tell them not to pay. They understood Jesus to be opposed to Rome’s onerous taxes, which were brutally collected, and which were impoverishing many of those among Jesus’ disciples. The principles Jesus famously preached forbade the collection of taxes by force and coercion. Tax collectors cannot follow his Golden Rule, nor heed his admonition to love one’s neighbor as oneself. So his enemies were sure Jesus’ answer to their entrapping question would convict him in his own words of sedition--a capital crime throughout the Roman Empire.

After first flattering Jesus, the duplicitous spies sprang their entraping question, a deadly one indeed: “Is it right to pay the imperial tax[b] to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” (Mark 12:14-15)



Realizing exactly what they were up to, Jesus did not answer their entrapping question. Instead, he employed a bit of a diversionary tactic, which has subsequently been embraced by skillful debators throughout the world:

 “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” (Mark 12:15-17)

What happened next? Jesus had thoroughly befuddled them with his answer: “They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent.”

Now the important questions is are these:

Did Jesus answer their question? Obviously he did not.

Did Jesus tell those who heard him they were to pay Caesar’s tax? Obviously, he did not.

Jesus’ response was brilliant, and of this there can be no doubt. It conveyed this meaning precisely: IF YOU HAVE NOTHING IN YOUR POSSESSION BELONGING TO CAESAR, GIVE HIM NOTHING. The dinarius in question did not belong to Caesar any more than the money in your possession belongs to Washington, or Lincoln or Jefferson because their faces are on your bills and coins.

As for giving God what is God’s, undoubtedly Jesus had in mind what Sacred Jewish Scripture says belongs to God and Caesar respectively. For in at least six places the Hebrew Bible answers that question clearly, as in Psalm 24, verse !: “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,” which leaves nothing for poor old Caesar, and nothing is what Jesus encouraged his disciples to give in support of the violent Roman Empire.


Ned Netterville 

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