Render therefore unto Caesar… Did we get it wrong?

I have been contemplating writing on this subject for awhile now.

For years I have blindly accepted the popular interpretation of this passage of scripture, never having any reason to question it. However two years ago while doing a routine personal bible study of the relevant passages of scripture in Luke chapter 20, Matthew chapter 22 and Mark chapter 12, I stumbled on what appears to me as a clearer understanding of the text.

I did not set out to find fault or even challenge this orthodoxy. It just so happened that as I was routinely studying these passages of scripture, it struck me that the context of the interaction between Jesus and the chief priests and scribes suggested something different than what was emphasised traditionally in my church circles.

In all humility and as a student of the Bible, I am always willing to change my view as I toil daily to rightly divide the word of truth.

I cannot begin to layout my understanding of this passage without first giving the reader a summary of one of the passages of scripture that describes what I am about to discuss. I will examine the apostle Luke’s account of the event.

The following is my precis of Luke chapter 20 verses 1-26. Verses 1 to 8, describes a scene where Jesus is teaching and preaching the gospel to the people in the temple, when he is accosted by the chief priests and scribes, questioning Jesus on whose authority that he was teaching and preaching to the people in the temple. Jesus, being perceptive that this question was aimed at undermining his legitimacy in the eyes of those he was teaching, answered their question with a question.

He asked the chief priest and the scribes: “The baptism of John, was it from heaven or of men?

The significance of that question was that despite John the Baptist not coming up through the ranks like the chief priests and scribes, he earned legitimacy as a prophet of God. Since John himself baptised Jesus, this was proof positive that Jesus was likewise legitimate. The chief priests and scribes knew that if they agreed that John was a true prophet who obviously got his authority directly from God, then they would have to acknowledge Jesus’s legitimacy by association. On the other hand if they denied that John was a prophet, then they risked being stoned by the people, who never questioned John’s legitimacy.

Knowing that the only safe answer to that question was that John the Baptist was authorized by God, thereby legitimising Jesus, they chose not to answer. Their aim was to discredit Jesus after all.

In verses 9 to 18, we see Jesus turning his attention back to the people in the temple and using this encounter with the chief priests and scribes as a teachable moment. He proceeded to tell a parable.

In this parable the story is told of a man who planted a vineyard and who decides to lease out that vineyard to a number of farmers. It is said that this man travelled to a far country and stayed away for a long time. Sometime later the man sent a servant to collect his rent from the farmers but they beat the servant and sent him on his way emptyhanded.

The man, again in two separate occasions sent two other servants, who sadly, suffered a similar fate as the very first servant.

Having had no success with sending servants, the man concludes that if he sent his son, the farmers would surely pay him respect and take the matter of paying their debt, seriously.

Unfortunately, the farmers had a sinister idea. They thought that with the son being the only heir of the man, killing his son would give them a good chance of inheriting the vineyard themselves. So they killed the man’s son, as the parable goes.

It is at this point of the parable that Jesus ask the people to whom he was speaking, what do you think the lord of the vineyard should do unto them? The people appeared to agree that the farmers’ deeds warranted punishment.

Drawing a parallel between the parable and his own situation as the son of God, Jesus reminds the people that the scriptures prophesied that the stone, referring to himself, that the builders rejected would become the main corner stone. Likewise as the parable alluded, that rejection of the stone would result in punishment: whether falling on the stone or having the stone fall on you.

The chief priests and scribes were paying attention to this parable and immediately surmised that Jesus was referring to them as the farmers. This made them want to put a whooping on Jesus but they “feared the people” and what the people might do if they laid hands on Jesus.From verse 19, the scriptures indicates that the chief priests and scribes plotted to get even with Jesus for embarrassing them and for exposing them as evil individuals.

They decided that they would have Jesus followed by spies who would listen to him speak and hopefully “take hold of his words” that appear to be antagonistic to the Roman authorities so that they can trap him.

Having seemingly figured that Jesus had a point of view contrary to the Roman rulers on the matter of giving tributes, the chief priests and scribes proceeded to flatter Jesus, calling him Master while encouraging him to speak freely. They affirmed that they know that he does not have respect of persons when it comes to speaking the truth. They sounded as if they were buttering up Jesus to fall into their trap.

Thinking that they could get Jesus off-guard by their flattery, they then asked him the following question:

Is it lawful for us to give tribute unto Caesar or no? (verse 22).Verse 23 indicates that Jesus perceived their craftiness, and said unto them, Why tempt ye me? He clearly understood their ruse.

Without skipping a beat, Jesus immediately asked someone to show him a penny. He then proceeds to ask, “Whose image and superscription” is on that penny? They answered and said, Caesar’s; to which he responded:

“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s and unto God the things which be God’s”. Bam!

The passage ends by concluding that the chief priests and scribes “could not take hold of his words before the people”: and they (chief priests and scribes) marvelled at his answer and held their peace. They marvelled because they thought that there was no answer to that question that would not put Jesus in a spot of bother.

Now that I have summarized the passage, let me proceed to put the story in context.

1. This passage was meant to demonstrate that Jesus “came onto his own and his own received him not”, John 1:11. We see this demonstrated by the chief priests and scribes questioning Jesus’s legitimacy in verse 1. The parable of the lord of the vineyard and the farmers brings home that same theme. Further, Jesus highlights scripture, referring to himself as the stone that the builders rejected. This is the crux of the passage.

2. During the interactions between Jesus and the chief priests and scribes we are shown how Jesus trapped them with his question about John the Baptist and later we see how they retaliated in an attempt trap Jesus in a similar manner. Whereas the chief priests and scribes could not answer their question, Jesus was able to give an answer that totally threw them off course.

3. The chief priests and scribes had spies follow Jesus to “take hold of his word” to use against him. They knew that if Jesus is who he said he was, he could not lie in the presence of the people and lose credibility. They figured out that if they could capture something Jesus said that was antagonistic to the Roman authorities, they could get him in big trouble. Remember that the aim of the question was to get Jesus in trouble with the Roman authorities. It is clear from the passage that the chief priests and scribes knew for certain that what they planned to ask would put Jesus in trouble with the Roman authorities. So the question I ask myself is, what answer to their question would put Jesus in direct conflict with the Roman authorities? It is therefore obvious that Jesus was not in agreement with the Jews giving tributes to Caesar.

4. The question itself is a clue. The question states: “is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar or no?” First off, why would the chief priests and scribes ask whether it was lawful? That is rather dumb to ask! It stands to reason that if Caesar is the lawgiver and mandates that you must give tribute, then it follows that it is lawful. Unless the “lawful” here does not refer to Roman law but rather the law of God, namely, the ten commandments. In the context of the Roman empire, the Jews had to give the Roman authorities a regular “ransom” (tribute) to avoid being annihilated. The passage in 1 Kings 9:20-21 gives testimony to that practice. The fact is, “tribute” is theft by the threat of death. The fact that an immoral practice has been legitimised over time does not make the act intrinsically moral in the sight of God. Why do we behave as if God has one law for human leaders/kings and another for everyone else? The law that is being violated is “thou shall not steal”. It is therefore not lawful to give tribute. Saying that it is not moral does not mean that you should not comply for the sake of your life.

5. The answer given by Jesus did not answer the question. The answer that Jesus gave would be a response to a question that was more like: should you give tribute to God or Caesar? The actual question had nothing to do with where ones allegiance should be. Jesus’ answer was skillful. It diverted the thinking of the listeners which allowed Jesus to evade answering the question, directly. We see skilled politicians use this technique all of the time to evade difficult questions. In fact, I daresay that Jesus’ answer worked so well that even readers today are still confused by his response.

The question that Jesus was asked had to be answered. He could not openly admit that the Jews should give tribute because that would be a lie, since the spies had already heard him speak otherwise; On the other hand he could not openly encourage rebellion to giving tribute to Caesar. Moreover, since there were Roman sympathizers amongst the crowd, to remain silent to this question would be construed as supporting a rebellion against giving tribute to Caesar. That too could get Jesus in trouble.

6. This story was not a treatise on why the Jews should be giving tribute or paying obeisance to Roman authorities. The whole issue of giving tributes is only covered in four of twenty six verses. It surprises me how the substantive message of the passage of Jesus being rejected is supplanted by a deliberately misleading response to a devious question. To conclude, the answer Jesus gave was simply a clever answer to a crafty question and was never intended to be a doctrinal treatise. What is interpreted from the statement: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things unto Caesar the things on to God the things unto God”, is no more Bible doctrine as Cain’s answer of “Am I my brother’s keeper?”.

Most of the teachings that is derived from Jesus’ answer in this passage is conjecture, in my humble opinion.