By Rabbi Jack Zimmerman,
Staff Evangelist for Jewish Voice
Rabbi Jack, in the final portion of his six-part series about paying taxes in biblical times, questions what most of us know about the often-quoted phrase “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Truly understanding what Yeshua (Jesus) meant by this phrase when confronting the teachers of the law will help us all to know that this message wasn’t a political one, but a spiritual one.
In Luke 20:24-25, Yeshua says to the spies sent by the teachers of the law, “Show me a denarius. Whose portrait and inscription are on it?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. “He said to them, “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
That’s not the best rendering of what Yeshua said. The Greek more accurately says this: “Then give back the things of Caesar, and the things of God give to God.”
What does this statement really mean? I can tell you it does not mean what you were taught in church all these years. You were taught wrong.
You were taught to honor Caesar and honor God. You probably haven’t given that interpretation a second thought because, let’s face it, Romans 13:1 says, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”
That means that if the authorities that exist are appointed by God, we don’t want to honor Caesar, but God put them there. You figure, let’s honor Caesar and give him what’s his, and let’s honor God and give Him what’s His.
But that’s not right. Honor Caesar and honor God, as if both are equally deserving of our honor? I don’t think so. But the bigger issue is that while you were supposed to honor the governing authorities, there was also a biblical principle that makes it OK to disobey your government if what they are asking you to do causes you to sin.
Let me give you an example. Remember the story of the book of Esther, when Haman is trying to convince the king to kill all the Jews? Esther finds out about it, and in Esther 4:16 she says to her eunuchs and her maids, “Go tell Mordecai to gather all the Jews present in Susa and fast for me. Don’t eat or drink anything for three days and three nights. My maids and I will fast also. I will go to the king, which is against the law. If I die, I die.” If the government tells you to do something but it causes you to sin against your God, you don’t have to do it.
Caesar was forcing the Jewish People to go against Torah. They didn’t have to do it, but when Yeshua said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s,” he is dealing with an entirely different issue. It doesn’t have anything to do with church and state.
Even the church fathers were wrong on this. Martin Luther once said, “For in the New Testament, Moses matters nothing and counts for nothing. Rather, there stands our Master, Christ. He subjects us with body and property to Caesar and worldly law, which He says, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.’”
Sorry, Luther. You got that wrong.
Or how about this verse from a popular church hymn from the 1700s: “Look upon Christ Jesus now, He was the subject low. Do as He did, and obey your overlord’s commands always.” Nope.
Yeshua’s comment is not about honoring church and state. That’s the Christian interpretation. We need to look at the original Hebraic interpretation.
When we do, we see that the focus of the discussion is not about paying taxes to Caesar. It’s about whether it is lawful or permitted to Torah to pay a tax. Is it lawful in Torah to pay taxes? Yes. However, is it lawful to pay that tax when the law of the land demands that the only way you can pay it is with a coin that has a graven image on it, which is a total affront to the Torah that you believe in? No.
When He said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s,” what He is actually saying to them is we would be more than happy to give this denarius back to Caesar because as far as we are concerned, he can have it. We are Jews. We don’t have any use for graven images, because we answer to a higher authority.
So, Caesar wants the coin? Give him his coin. But that is all he is getting from us, because we are giving our allegiance and our worship not to Caesar but to God, the God who created us in His image. That’s the only image that matters.
Yeshua isn’t only condemning the Torah teachers, but he is also convicting them. He is basically saying to them, “We may be paying a coin to Caesar, but we are paying tribute to our God. How come you Torah teachers aren’t doing that?”
Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s has been taught as a story about governing authorities and church and state. It’s not.
This is a story about a call to repentance. When Yeshua said what He said, He didn’t come off as a coward who caved into the Roman government, nor did He come off as one who was committing treason because He didn’t incite His fellow Jews to break the law. On top of that, He put His questioners in their place because the very Torah they were supposed to be upholding was the same Torah that was now convicting them.
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Rabbi Jack’s Paying Taxes in Yeshua’s Day Blog Series:
- Picking a High Priest in Bible Times
- Temple Taxes and the ‘Den of Robbers’
- A Short History of Jewish Tax Revolt
- Torah and Taxes: The Age of Denarius
- Show Me the Money (the Denarius)!
- Paying Taxes to Caesar: Final Thoughts