‘Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?’ Mark 12. 14
The Bible refers to both tax collectors and taxation issues. One of the disciples called by the Lord was Matthew, a tax collector, Matt. 9. 9. Matthew later invited the Lord to his house for a meal where the guests included tax collectors and other unsavoury characters. The Pharisees censured the Lord for eating with such people, especially directing their venom towards tax collectors, cp. Luke 18. 11. Tax collectors were despised because they collected taxes for the Roman authorities, and generally extracted more money than required by law – note the reparation offered by Zacchaeus, Luke 19. 8. Mark chapter 12 verses 13 to 17 and the synoptic parallels record an incident where our Lord came into conflict with the Pharisees and others over the question of taxing rights. They questioned Him with reference to taxation under the civil law, but underlying their question was the law of Moses. The Pharisees sought to entrap the Lord, but He was totally aware of their malevolence. He answers their question with a question. ‘Why are you testing me?’ cp. Num. 6. 16. He asks to see a coin that was used to pay the specific tax, which, characteristically, Matthew identifies as the poll tax, Matt. 22. 19. He then asks them whose head and title appeared on the coin, and their response gives rise to the Lord’s saying, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’, Mark 12. 17. This reply silenced all His critics! But is this saying as straightforward as it appears? The interpretation of this saying lies in both the religious and political significance of the answer from the Lord. The poll tax was a hated form of taxation and had led to all kinds of challenges to the authorities. But how does He get around this apparent difficulty? He tells them to render or give back – notice the word for ‘give’ (apodidomi) means ‘to make a payment of a debt’. So, in effect, He is saying if you owe Caesar a debt then give it back to him. But per contra if you owe God a debt then you must give that back to Him. What really is behind our Lord’s comments is Genesis chapter 1 verse 26 and the infraction of the second commandment, Exod. 20. 4. Because mankind is made in the image and likeness of God and belong to Him, then it is incumbent upon them to give themselves back to God. Additionally, by accepting coinage that showed a graven image meant that they had made for themselves graven images. When Caesar claimed what was rightfully God’s, then the claims of God must take priority. In the words of Peter and the other apostles in Acts chapter 5 verse 29, ‘We ought to obey God rather than men’. Our Lord was not saying that it was wrong to pay taxes, but the fundamental question was whether or not we are paying to God what is rightfully owed to Him? A very challenging question for all believers, even today.