The Truth About Tax
Where would you be without a) tap water, b) road rules, c) God?
At the end of Chapter 19, Jesus and his ever-growing crowd of followers entered Jerusalem on a journey that we have been following since Chapter 9. Even before entering the gates of Jerusalem, the Pharisees wanted to silence any idea that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah (Luke 19:39). As Chapter 20 began, Jesus spoke in a parable of a vineyard owner who sent his son to be respected by the farmers who were looking after the vineyard. The son was, of course, rejected and killed by the farmers. The topic of acknowledging and respecting the rightful ruler has come into focus. The teachers of the law and chief priests who heard that parable began to plot how to arrest Jesus without becoming hated by the multitude who loved Jesus.
Read Luke 20:20-26
20 Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor. 21 So the spies questioned him: “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. 22 Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
23 He saw through their duplicity and said to them, 24 “Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
25 He said to them, “Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
26 They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent.
What did you see?
- Pretending to be sincere (20)
- It’s a trap! (21-25)
- Keeping their trap shut (26)
Pretending to be sincere (20)
“Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies…” Who are the ‘they’? Verse 19 is the closest identity to match with the pronoun: The teachers of the law and the chief priests. They were looking for a way to arrest Jesus. They couldn’t just walk up and arrest him because he was so popular and they feared the people. These are folk in high positions when it comes to teaching the Laws of Moses and leading the people in the ways of the LORD but they were clearly at the mercy of the crowd. Their power was being threatened by Jesus since people were hanging on his every word. So, rather than stand up for the Law as they read it, they sent spies to seek to trap Jesus. Their plan was to be ready for Jesus to say or do the wrong thing so that they could strip him of his followers and remove him.
“…who pretended to be sincere.” You know, it’s very possible to blend into any crowd as long as you know how to mimic others. It would seem that most people following Jesus were sincere about their reasons for being with him. But these spies only pretended sincerity. Wolves in sheep’s clothing. See Acts 20:28-30.
“…so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor.” Reflect on that and see the irony. With their authority over the people of God (the Jews), they had to send in spies to pretend to be sincerely listening to Jesus so that they could catch him in his words and then – hand him over to the governor who had power to execute or imprison. They couldn’t catch him with any heresy and so they try to catch him saying something against the human authorities. If they had to resort to that, then why couldn’t they concede that this man speaks the words of God! It’s difficult at this point to work out who these Jewish leaders are actually serving! Are they even pretending to be sincere about serving Yahweh? Who do they wish to serve?
So, the scene is set and the characters introduced and the question is: how will they catch Jesus out? Will Jesus see through the trickery?
It’s a trap! (21-25)
“Teacher, we know…” Lies.
“…you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.” They lie about what they know but there is truth in the lie. Jesus was all that. But Jesus was more than that too. His teaching was not just the way of God but that he had the authority to forgive sins (Luke 5:17-26)! The spies, being insincere, do not realise who they are speaking with. They are likely to be buttering Jesus up. Flattery will get you everywhere – unless you are speaking with Jesus. But in their flattery they have mentioned that he speaks without partiality – or favouritism. Wouldn’t it follow that he will not respond to their flattery? They are hoping that Jesus will endorse an anti-government philosophy because he is an impartial speaker of following God! Caesar is not the true ruler of Israel. Only God is! This may have been their expected response. But God’s kingdom is not in competition with any rulers of this age. They are different categories of kingdoms!
“Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” They request a right or wrong answer – yes or no. Is it wrong to pay taxes to Caesar? Is it lawful for a Jew to pay taxes to Caesar? Should, by the command of God, a Jew rebel against a Gentile ruler? Who, after all, is this Caesar to God? This is the question they hope to trap Jesus with. The question is loaded because of their introduction to the question. “You are an immovable champion of God, Jesus. What do you want to say to Caesar?” It will only need a response like, “There is no ruler but Yahweh” for the spies to get what they came for. The commentator BOCK paraphrases their question and intent as “Is it right for us Jews to pay this tax to Caesar or not? Are God’s people exempt from paying such a tax to a foreign power? Jesus, are you loyal to Israel, looking for its independence, or should we knuckle under to Rome?”
“He saw through their duplicity and said…” That is, Jesus knew that this was a trap. He perceived their trickery. They were pretending to be sincere in their question but were really trying to catch Jesus by his answer. There need not be any supernatural gift read into this but certainly we concede that Jesus was no fool.
“Show me a denarius.” This was a common coin often representing a single day’s wage. It included a picture of Caesar on it and words such as “Tiberius Caesar, Augustus, son of divine Augustus.” On the other side, according to BOCK, his mother Livia portrayed as an incarnation of the goddess of peace and the inscription “high priest.” These images and words may, to a devout Jew and even a devout keeper of the Laws of Moses, have been offensive.
“Whose image and inscription are on it?” This response from Jesus may have had the spies excited at first. To highlight that there is an image of Caesar with words that promoted him as something higher than a man – a god even! Wow! Jesus, who will not show favouritism and who speaks the true words of God may go Exodus 20:4 or 23 on them. But his request to present a coin will backfire on them…
“…give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” They were easily able to produce a coin out of their purse which represented fair trade in the Roman kingdom. The spies were quite happy to carry these coins on themselves and trade under that currency. If you make use of something, honour where it is from and respect what is expected in return. So, pay the tax if you carry the coin and if you breath oxygen, then use your lungs to praise God. More than that, it is not just the coin that carries an image on it – humans all have been created in the image of God (Gen 1:26). So, when Jesus says, ‘give back to … God what is God’s’ then surely it is a rebuke for all of the image-bearers of God to render their lives to Him!
Jesus says very little here to explore the difference between church and state or to create a thorough and conclusive doctrine of government and human authority. But he is certainly not teaching us to be politically insubordinate. Romans 13:1-7 gives us the words of Paul (and the Spirit) on this matter of paying taxes. Some will build a thorough model of a Godly society that establishes a government or monarchy that has been ordained by God. This does not mean that kings and queens and politicians are somehow unique in God’s view of the world. Good kings and evil kings are equally ordained to be in office. No law is given with respect to rebelling under evil government – only narratives in the books of Exodus and Daniel and so on. Paying taxes is not a mandatory law from God. The principal given in Luke 20 and Romans 13 is that we exist in community and we cannot enjoy the benefits of that community while rebelling at the same time.
The other side of this coin is the rebuke from Jesus that his hearers need to give to God what is God’s. What exactly is that? Respect? Honour? Praise? Thankfulness? Repentance? Sorrow? Humility? Micah 6:8. Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly. We cannot do that naturally because of our love for rebellion (going it alone without giving to God what is God’s) and so Jesus has become our righteousness, humbling himself to die for us in the greatest act of mercy ever seen. Jesus describes later in Luke 20 how horribly the leaders of Israel act (Luke 20:46-47. They are hypocrites like the spies that they sent to trap Jesus. Honesty before God and responding to Jesus as the Son, the sacrificial Lamb of God – this is what God desires. We don’t come to God to trap him. We come to God to confess our rebelliousness. We come to God to surrender the throne of our lives to his rule.
Keeping their trap shut (26)
“They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public.” Mission failure for the spies who were sent to trap Jesus. They came to catch him, they heard his excellent and faultless answer and went away unchanged by him.
“And astonished by his answer, they became silent.” Having failed to trap Jesus they were left standing with their traps shut. We are told that they were astonished by his answer. They must have thought they would have him either way! If he promotes paying taxes then people will dislike this. If he gives and anti-Caesar answer, then they have him on treason! Win-win! But his answer remains impartial to Caesar and to these spies, remains true to God and challenges people to honour God with their lives. It certainly rebukes the trappers to think carefully about what they will do with the One Whom God has sent.
What did we learn?
Some will listen to the words of Jesus and no matter what he says will not respond with worship. These spies illustrate those who do not come to Jesus to learn but to close him down, shut him out and trap him into hypocrisy, heresy or anti-humanity. Jesus challenges us to see clearly who is really in charge and give honour due to the One who rules.
Topic A: If Jesus spoke what is right, impartially, in accordance with the truth about God… then how ought we respond to this man from Nazareth? And if God has created us in his own image, how ought we respond to him? We are bound to God inherently because of the way we are created, and how much more ought we give back to God because he is an upright, holy, sincere, generous and impartial God! This is not just his world and so give to him because you must (like paying taxes) but give to him because he is good!
Topic B: Being conscious of wolves in sheep’s clothing. Not all who attend our Christian gatherings, sing with us or even serve alongside us are truthfully born again. It can be difficult to spot sometimes. But what should we do about this? Acts 20:28-30 warns us to keep watch and for leaders in the church particularly to stay alert as overseers. Jesus refuted these spies with exactly what they asked for, that is, truth without partiality. We are not to say what people want us to say but are to stick to the gospel truth and give to God what is God’s.
Topic C: Paying taxes. The point of this passage is not to declare a God ordained rule that taxes are a sure thing in life. The message from Jesus is to respect and honour those in authority. He does not endorse or expect a quiet rebellion from his sincere followers. On the contrary, we ought to be the first to give to the government what is expected of us as citizens in this land.