Is it lawful to pay tax? The message on the coin

The Question… is it lawful to pay tax?

Is it lawful to pay tax? This is the question that the Pharisees and Herodians put to Jesus days before His crucifixion.

Jesus’ answer to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” has been interpreted by some as a brilliant way to sidestep the question that was designed to trick him – by not providing a definitive answer. Whilst others have interpreted it as Jesus’ endorsement to pay taxes to Caesar whilst simultaneously paying one’s tithes to the Temple – to worship God, but to pay your taxes.

Both of these interpretations leave me unsatisfied, and fail to explain how Jesus’ answer caused the Pharisees and Herodians to marvel – indicating that the answer Jesus provided was incredibly profound.

I believe that the profoundness of His answer is that it showed the way on how to obtain that most deeply held desire of every first century Judean… the desire for freedom.

Freedom was a hot topic in first century Jerusalem, it lay at the root cause for many of the violent uprisings that occurred against the Roman occupiers at the time.

Freedom was a hot topic then, and it is a hot topic now, which makes this passage surprisingly relevant for us today.

I hope you will stay with me as we look into this most interesting passage of God’s Word.

Who posed the question?

It was the Pharisees and Herodians that posed the question. These guys did not normally see eye to eye as they had opposing world views.

The Pharisees were the nation’s religious leaders. They were nationalistic and wanted to see an end to Roman occupation, which they believed could be achieved through religious purity, and they therefore burdened the people with additional laws.

Whilst the Pharisees sought an end to Roman occupation the Herodians were willing to compromise. They hoped for the return of Herodian rule in Judea and believed that this could be achieved if there was a prolonged period of peace with Rome. The last thing they wanted was the arrival of a Messiah figure who might cause an uprising causing Rome to tighten her grip.

Both the Pharisees and Herodians opposed Jesus and wanted to see Him removed from the scene. It was on this common ground that they formulated their trap to trick Him with their question.

What were the possible answers to the question?

If Jesus had answered this question by stating that “yes, it is lawful to pay taxes”, the Pharisees would have branded Him a compromiser – one who had no real plan for the inauguration of the Kingdom despite all His talk, and this would have seriously impacted His standing amongst His followers.

On the other hand, if he answered their question in the negative “no, it is not lawful” then the Herodians would have quickly had Him arrested on a charge of sedition against Rome.

Jesus appears to have no way out here. He appears stuck between a rock and a hard place. 

Yet his masterful answer moves past the issue of the lawfulness of taxation all together, and touches the very heart of the matter which lies behind the question.

Let’s consider the tax…

The tax in question was a very specific kind of tax. It was a head tax – a highly contested tax in Judea. 

It was an ever present reminder of Roman occupation – that you belonged to the Empire and were its property.

This was highly offensive to the Judeans. They believed that they belonged to God. They had been created in His image, from the dust of the earth, and were His special people. 

In recognition of God’s claim of ownership, males would pay an annual tax of a half shekel of silver to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Rome’s imposition of a head tax was seen as a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the God of Israel.

Jesus answers the question put before him by drawing attention to the coin used for the payment of the tax.

The answer hidden on the coin

In the first century there was no mass media… there were no printing presses, no Facebook. So one way that propaganda was spread throughout the empire was through the use of coins.

Coins spread to the far corners of the empire and were long lasting… ensuring that Caesar’s message would be distributed far and wide.

The Roman tax could only be paid with a Roman coin, and this coin was a denarius issued by Caesar Tiberius.

On one side of the coin there is a bust of the Caesar himself with the inscription “Son of the Divine Augustus”, whilst on the reverse is the text “High Priest”.  

Here Caesar is identifying himself as both the son of God and the High Priest.

This all formed part of the Roman gospel narrative which claimed that Caesar – as the son of God, had become the King of the world and had brought peace, justice and prosperity for all.

The use of this coin affirmed the message that was being pushed by Rome – that one’s economic prosperity and security depended on Caesar – the son of God.

This claim was of course blasphemous to the Judeans, who were themselves anticipating the arrival of the Messiah, the true son of God.

How Jesus answers the question

When presented with the coin Jesus poses a question to the Pharisees and Herodians. He asks, “Whose is this likeness, and inscription is this?”

In our western context we think that Jesus is merely asking the Pharisees and Herodians to identify what they see on the coin. However, He isn’t only asking a question. He is using a remez.

Remez is a semitic word meaning “hinted meaning” or a “hearkening back to something that needs no further explanation”. Modern day examples of remez in our culture would be phrases such as “the White House”, “the Cold War”, “9-11” or “social distancing”. These are words and phrases that have historical, emotional and political meanings that are universally understood. We can use these phrases as a form of shorthand, without needing to explain their full definitions.

In the first century Judeans were well versed in the Hebrew Scriptures, so when Jesus spoke the remez His reference to the Hebrew scriptures was clearly understood.

By asking whose likeness is on the coin Jesus is highlighting the prohibition against the creation of false likenesses contained in the second commandment. And referring to the text on the coin as an inscription He is referencing the Shema, the greatest of the commands, which is to be inscribed on the heart of every Israelite, 

Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one.

Deuteronomy 6:4

This use of remez left His questioners in no doubt as to the answer according to the Word of God – payment of this tax to Caesar would indeed be unlawful.

To Be Continued…

In our next episode we will continue our discovery of this event and consider what Jesus meant when He said “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”.

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