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The Question of Tribute

A "trick" question for Jesus


by James Dawsey (written 1986)

     Few texts have been quoted more frequently in sermons on the
relationship of Church and State than Jesus' saying: "Render to
Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that
are God's." And yet, not many Bible passages have received a less
objective treatment from the pulpit than this one.
     Most often there has been very little attention given to the
context of the saying in the gospel story. The saying simply has
been appropriated into the present. It is common, for example, in
our time to find it linked to appeals for the "separation of
Church and State," a relatively modern concept originating in
Elizabethan England. Sometimes, it is even grotesquely used in
support of calls for "Christian non-involvement" with the social
issues of nuclear proliferation, the war on poverty, and third
world hunger.

The Lucan Context

     In Luke, as in Mark and Matthew, Jesus' saying, "Render to
Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that
are God's," is spoken in the Temple in answer to a question asked
by His enemies. The Temple leaders had been opposed to Jesus'
activity in cleansing the Temple and teaching the people (Luke
19:45-48). They had wanted to kill Him, but had not been able to
because "all the people hung upon His words." They then had
attempted to discredit Jesus by asking Him about His authority
(Luke 20:I ff). The question had not been a sincere one. It had
been carefully staged in front of the people so as to compare
Jesus' authority with the official authority of the Sanhedrin.
Jesus had escaped their trap by appealing to the prophetic
authority and ministry of John (Luke 20:3-8). Further, He had
reversed the hidden accusation of the Temple's leaders and had
told a parable to the people questioning the leaders authority
(Luke 20:9-19).

     As the scribes and chief priests themselves had understood
the parable of the vineyard, they were the tenants being accused
of refusing the owner's son and attempting to usurp his
inheritance. Frustrated in their attempt to challenge Jesus'
influence with the people, the Temple leaders then had sent spies
to trap Jesus. It was to them that Jesus answered, "Then render
to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things
that am God's."

     Two points in this quickly sketched context need further
explication. The first concerns the reason that the leaders of
the temple in Luke were so violently opposed to Jesus. What was
it about Jesus that so displeased them? The second concerns the
nature of the trap that the spies set for Jesus. Why was the
question, "Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or
not?" crafty (Luke 20:22)?

     In answer, let us focus on the eschatological content of
Jesus' teaching in the Temple in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus
cleansed the Temple by recalling Isaiah's promise that salvation
was coming soon (Isaiah 56:7) and Jeremiah's announcement of
impending doom (Jeremiah 7:11). Likewise, Luke 21 was a
proclamation that judgment (both doom and salvation) was on its
way. The last words of Jesus' speech were to "watch at all times,
praying that you may have strength to escape all these things
that will take place and to stand before the Son of Man" (Luke
21:36). Further, Jesus defended His authority before the
Sanhedrin and the people by appealing to John's baptism (Luke
20:4). Thus, the words that the people hung upon were the message
of the coming Kingdom of God. It was the announcement that the
Kingdom was breaking in that was so violently opposed by the
leaders of the Temple. That is why they questioned His authority
(Luke 20:1ff).
     According to Lukes' account, Jesus perceived the spies
question concerning tribute to be "crafty" (Luke 20:23). At issue
is its relationship to Jesus' proclamation of the Kingdom. Among
other things, the arrival of the Kingdom would have: signified to
Jesus' audience in the Temple the end of the Roman rule of
Israel. If Jesus, then, were to have answered that it was not
lawful to give tribute to Rome, the Sanhedrin would have been
able to accuse Him of preaching sedition. In fact, they do this
later in the story (Luke 23:2). On the other hand, if Jesus were
to have answered that it was lawful to give tribute to Rome, He
would have been contradicting His own message of the arrival of
the Kingdom. Thus, in keeping with the pattern of the question
concerning Jesus' authority, the spies' question was also
designed as a trap, which when sprung would convince the people
that Jesus' announcement of the arriving Kingdom was not true.

An Historical Perspective

     Thus, in part, Jesus' answer was given in avoidance of an
impossible situation. But Jesus saying, "Then render unto Caesar
the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are
God's," was more than a clever way of escaping a trap. At least
three historical aspects of Jesus' time are important to the
meaning of this passage.

1. At that time, the Sanhedrin was indirectly controlled by Rome.
The governor of Judea (through the legate of Syria) appointed the
high priest, whose holy vestments were kept locked up at Antonia
and only released for festival occasions. The extent of the
control of the government over the Temple authorities can be seen
in the way Pilate appropriated the "sacred 'korban' money" of the
Temple to build an aqueduct.

2. What today we commonly call "the Sanhedrin" was not only a
judicial and religious body, but also served many economic
functions. The Sanhedrin itself was responsible for taxes paid
directly into the imperial treasury (i.e., into the emperor's 
private funds).

3. The intensity of the Jewish objection to "graven images"
cannot be minimized. Bronze coins struck by the Roman governors
for local use did not portray the emperor's head. This was done
out of respect to the Jewish belief in one God. As a further
illustration, one only need think of the stir that Pilate caused
by bringing standards with medallion busts into Jerusalem. The
city was thought to have been desecrated, and thousands of Jews 
were willing to die rather than have the standards honoring the
emperor remain in God's holy Jerusalem.

Jesus' Call, Past and Present

     Given the Sanhedrin's affiliation with Rome and the Jewish
objection to "graven images," Jesus' answer in the Temple becomes
more than a clever response to a devious trap. Jesus did ask for
a denarius, a Roman coin. And yes, Caesar's image was on the
coin. But the Temple was God's house, and the context of the
confrontation was Jesus' mission of announcing God's Kingdom.

     The second part of Jesus' saying, "(render) to God the
things that are God's" (ta ton theou ), is grammatically similar
to another of Jesus' sayings from the Temple: "Did you not know
that I must be about my Father's business?" (en tois tou patros
mou, Luke 2:49). The implication, in any event is clear. Jesus
was about God's business. The Sanhedrin, on the other hand, was
not. Jesus' saying to the spies was, among other things, a
reminder to the people that the Sanhedrin had been paying tribute
to Caesar, when it should have been giving tribute to God.

     Jesus' reply, then, took the form of an accusation. As with
the question concerning authority, Jesus reversed the intent of
His opponents and accused them of not being about God's business.
The reply was an accusation that could not be rebutted, and thus
Jesus' enemies once more fell silent (Luke 20:26).

     Perhaps, now, almost two thousand years later, it would be
beneficial for the church not to put aside so easily the context
and the accompanying accusation of Jesus' saying concerning
tribute in Luke 20:25. In our day the saying is a reminder that
the church owes ultimate responsibility, not to the state, but to
God. As was true of the Temple, the church also lives under the
judgment of the Kingdom.


Scripture quotations taken from the Revised Standard Version

The above article appeared in the Bible Advocate, February 1986,
a publication of the Church of God, Seventh Day, Denver, CO. USA

Entered on this Website November 2007

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