Someone once said that there are only two things certain in life: death and taxes. While that is a rather bleak summation of what we can expect in this life, it is certainly true that death and taxes are universal human certainties. Thankfully, we don’t have to tread these deep waters alone. Taxes were a hot-button topic in Jesus’ day and thus became the focus of several discussions. Let’s see what we can learn from one of the best-known questions posed to Jesus about paying taxes.

We adapted these notes from the newest volume in the Old and New Testament Library series. This volume on Matthew is by R. Alan Culpepper, the Dean Emeritus of the MacAfee School of Theology.

Paying Tax to Caesar

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are truthful and teach God’s way truthfully, and the opinion of others does not matter to you because you do not regard a person’s status. Tell us, therefore, what you think. Is it lawful to pay the poll tax to Caesar or not?”

But, Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” They brought him a denarius. He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s”. Then he said to them, “So, give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar, and the things that are God’s to God”. When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

Matthew 22:15–22

The Hypocrites Pose the Tax Question

22:15-17 Compared to the other Synoptics, Matthew heightens the Pharisees’ culpability in this scene. First, Matthew repeats the report that the Pharisees plotted against Jesus (see 12:14; 22:15; 27:62). Second, they send “their disciples”, who offer insincere praise of Jesus’ truthfulness and impartial judgment (22:16). Part of the trap is that they take Herodians with them, since the Herodians have connections for reporting seditious teachings if Jesus would say they should not pay the tax. By this time, Pilate was the administer in Judea, so the Herodians were probably associates of Herod Antipas. On the other hand, Jesus would lose popular support if he said they should pay the tax. Earlier, Josephus tells us, Judas the Galilean “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”.

We read that the Pharisees plotted to trap Jesus, but we are not aware of the trap before they pose their question to him. Their false flattery, no doubt intended to disarm Jesus, delays the asking of the question. The Pharisees address Jesus as “Teacher,” which signals not their readiness to accept his teachings but their disingenuous intentions (8:19; 12:38; 19:16; 22:16, 24, 36). They assure Jesus that they know he teaches “the way of God” (cf. Acts 18:26) truthfully and is not swayed by regard for anyone’s position. Finally, they spring their question, asking for an interpretation of the law: is payment of this tax permitted (12:2, 10; 14:4; 19:3; 20:15; 22:17; 27:6)? Can one follow the emperor’s dictates and God’s commands, or does the divine law negate imperial law? The tax in question was the hated poll tax, which required Roman subjects to “pay homage” to Caesar.

Excursus: Roman Taxation

The question concerning taxes is set in the tense context of Roman conquest and oppression, which was maintained by money and soldiers. The poll tax (Greek, kēnsos; Latin, tributa) was based on a census. After 167 BCE, except in emergency situations, tributa were collected, not from Roman citizens, but only from inhabitants of Roman provinces, thus enforcing their status as conquered provincials. Tributa included land and poll taxes. The fiscus Iudaicus was a specific tribute imposed on Jews after the war of 66-70 CE. The tributa were collected by tax collectors and, by the first century, state officials.

Vectigalia—so-called indirect taxes, distinct from tributa—were based on goods bought and sold and were paid by citizens and noncitizens alike. Vectigalia included both empire-wide and local taxes and varied under different emperors. Especially notable were the inheritance tax (5 percent), the manumission tax (5 percent), sales tax (1 percent), and tax on the sale of slaves (4 percent, established in 7 CE). In addition, there were portoria (custom duties or tariffs) paid at customs stations at the outer borders (where the rate could range from 12.5 to 25 percent) and internally, where the rate was much lower (1 to 5 percent).

By some estimates, the top 5 percent of the society controlled 50-65 percent of the goods and services.

Taxation in Roman Palestine was extractive, that is, designed to assert elite control over agrarian production . . . Caesar’s agents collected taxes and redistributed them to clients. The priests and the Jerusalem temple collected offerings and redistributed them. Redistribution exchanges were replicated throughout society. Their major impact was to remove most goods from the control and enjoyment of most people . . . The benefits in ancient economy flowed “upward” to the advantage of the elites.

Jesus Responds to the Test

22:18-22 Again, the storyteller delays, building suspense before relating Jesus’ response. In a narrative aside, the narrator reports that Jesus knew their “wickedness.” Although Matthew often criticizes the Pharisees as hypocrites, here the evangelist changes their “hypocrisy” (Mark 12:15) to their “wickedness” (ponērian), then adds “hypocrites” at the end of his question. First, Jesus asks why they put him to the test. In Matthew, only Satan and the Pharisees and Sadducees test Jesus (4:1, 3; 16:1; 19:3; 22:18, 35). Then, he tells them to bring him a coin and asks the Pharisees and Herodians a question. Only then does he respond to their question with an answer that arises from the answer they have given him. His accusers trap themselves by their own words although their plan had been to trap Jesus.

Here is how Jesus turns the tables on them. The Pharisees and Herodians ask about a specific tax (kēnsos), the census tax. In response, Jesus asks them to show him the coin to pay the tax. Mark and Luke report that Jesus said, “Bring/show me a denarius,” but Matthew underlines the connection between the coin and the poll tax by having Jesus ask for the coin with which the tax was paid. Moreover, the fact that they have a coin with Caesar’s image implies that they have already accepted Caesar’s authority.

Jesus asks whose image and inscription are on the coin. Julius Caesar was the first living person whose image appeared on a Roman coin, and all later emperors followed his example. Caesar adopted the young Octavian, who succeeded him, took the title Caesar Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE), and flooded the Roman world with his portrait. On coins and statues in marble and bronze, on jewelry and silverware, Augustus spread his image.

Pay What is Owed: Taxes to Caesar, Yourselves to God

Jesus’ response, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (22:21 NAB), assumes that those who hear him know that human beings were created in the “image” (Grk. eikōn; Heb. ṣelem) and “likeness” (Heb. dĕmût) of God (Gen 1:26-27; 5:1; 9:6; cf. Ps 8:5-8). The imago dei has been interpreted variously as rationality, free will, dominion, or the capacity for creativity. At a minimum, the principal distinction between human beings and other creatures is their capacity for self-reflective thought and their capacity to live in relationship to God, in covenant and obedience, and to worship God. The command to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Lev 19:18; Matt 22:39) flows directly from the recognition of the sacredness of human life: we are to recognize the image of God in one another (Gen 9:6).

Early interpreters recognized the force of Jesus’ response. Tertullian wrote, “That means render the image of Caesar, which is on the coin, to Caesar, and the image of God, which is imprinted on the person, to God. You give to Caesar only money. But to God, give yourself”; and Augustine put it tersely, “To Caesar his coins, to God your very selves”. Matthew’s interest is clearly more in what is owed to God (cf. 21:41) and Jesus’ silencing of the Pharisees; yet the question of taxation may not have been altogether insignificant since Matthew includes Jesus’ teaching on the payment of the temple tax (17:24-27).

The Pharisees and Herodians were “amazed,” a response that elsewhere follows Jesus’ miracles and healings (8:27; 9:33; 15:31; 21:20; 22:22). With no recourse left to them, they simply go away.

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