In Matthew 22, we read that a group of Pharisees confronted Jesus and asked for a yes or no answer on whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, the Roman emperor. Jesus responded by asking whose face was engraved on the coins used to pay the taxes. When they answered it was Caesar’s face, Jesus replied with the now-famous verse, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21 NASB).
This short story about paying taxes has been interpreted in multiple different ways, none of them very satisfactory. Nearly every political viewpoint has attempted to justify themselves using this verse. However, the ultimate explanation is far less about taxes and more about how we relate to the government vs. how we relate to God. A closer examination of this story will reveal its true meaning.
The Image on the Coin
In ancient times, an image on an object showed ownership. Since the Roman emperor also viewed himself as a god, some Jews objected to paying taxes with Roman money, calling it idolatry. By acknowledging the image of Caesar but not condemning it, Jesus confirms that this perspective was flawed. Caesar’s right to claim taxes was backed up by his image appearing on Roman money. The image was not a demand for worship, just a demonstration of ownership.
Correcting the People’s Perspective
As Jesus often did, He turned the discussion from the initial question to the more deep-seated issues behind it. The second part of His answer, to give “to God what is God’s”, serves as a reminder to focus on our relationship with God. Whether the Jewish audience paid their taxes or not, it was more important for them to focus on honoring their own “image”–the image of God that every human carries. Like the image of Caesar, the image of God suggests ownership of us. It’s far more important to make sure we’re pleasing God than the human government.
Pro Tip: We belong to God, not the government. Any government that denies this is wrong and should not replace God.
What This Doesn’t Mean
This story, sometimes in conjunction with Peter’s declaration to obey God rather than man, is often used to justify the notion that the church and the government have little to no positive relationship. While the American government and church have historically had some fights, Jesus definitely promoted an attitude of respect and honor toward the government. This respect takes the form of obeying the law, paying taxes, and honoring our elected representatives. Remember, the government in Jesus’ day was totalitarian and ruled by a dictator. Even if we don’t like our current political leaders, citizens placed them there through fair and open elections. If even the Roman government deserved the Jews’ respect, our much more fair government deserves ours.
Our Relationship to the Government
It’s difficult to formulate an exact method for Christians to relate to the government. Not every law passed is moral, and not every government official deserves our respect. The Bible itself records instances where rebels are commended for resisting or overthrowing a wicked ruler. But just as we can’t use the Bible to justify unconditionally obeying everything the government says, we likewise can’t use the Bible to justify the complete opposite behavior. Whatever conclusion you come to should be reached through much thought and prayer about the proper way to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.
Join the conversation to see how others interpret these challenging verses.