The Pharisees and Herodians in today’s Gospel, who pose the question to Jesus about paying tax to Caesar, are not seeking guidance in making a difficult moral decision. They are trying to trap Jesus into a no-win situation with a sticky question that has no easy solution. Since the Roman occupation of Palestine in 63 B.C., Jews were obliged to pay a census tax, or head tax, on each man, woman and slave. The amount was one denarius (one day’s pay) per year, and was to be paid with Roman coins, which in Jesus’ day bore the image of the emperor Tiberius, who reigned from A.D. 14 to A.D. 37.
The attitudes of Jesus’ fellow Jews toward the Romans varied, as did their strategies for resistance to the occupiers. Some resigned themselves to do what was necessary in order to live peaceably and dutifully paid their taxes, even while harboring resentment. Some paid the tax because they regarded the Romans as representing God’s authority (see Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pt 2:13-17). Some, like the Herodians, derived their power from the Romans and would have openly advocated paying tribute to Rome. Others were in desperate straits because of the exorbitant taxes levied on them and feared losing their land or falling so far into debt that they would be sold into slavery (see Mt 18:23-35).
Some would have said that they should pay nothing to Caesar because everything belongs to God (Lv 25:23). Some would have opposed any collusion with Rome. There were those who harbored strong nationalist sentiments and fomented armed revolt against the occupying powers. Josephus tells of several first-century revolutionary leaders, including Judas the Galilean (Acts 5:37), who led unsuccessful tax revolts.
In asking Jesus to take a stand on this thorny question, the Pharisees hope to discredit him. If he supports paying the tax, then he would be seen as cooperating with the enemy, and his credibility as a prophet who preaches God’s ways as opposed to Caesar’s imperial ways is compromised. If he replies that the tax ought not be paid, then he places himself at risk vis-à-vis the Romans.
Jesus finds a way through these two opposite choices: one should give the coins back to Caesar, since they belong to him. He then turns the focus toward “what belongs to God,” which, for believers, is everything. Thus Jesus relativizes the authority of the emperor by emphasizing God’s ultimate sovereignty over all. This clever answer leaves Jesus’ opponents astounded. They have no response, and they depart to await another opportunity to ensnare him.
In the Gospel, Jesus’ interlocutors are not asking a sincere question; they are intent on undoing him. Nonetheless, the text can be an aid for contemporary Christians who genuinely seek to discern how they will relate to a government that takes actions or enacts laws that they oppose on moral grounds.
Should one withhold paying taxes, for example, as some Christians (like Raymond Hunthausen, former archbishop of Seattle) have done to express their opposition to the stockpiling of nuclear weapons? Should one refuse to pay federal income tax as a way to protest war, as Dorothy Day did? Or should one pay taxes but diligently lobby, vote and participate in nonviolent protests as ways to communicate an oppositional stance?
Jesus’ single-mindedness about the reign of God and his cleverness in turning a verbal duel into an invitation to become more deeply centered on the Holy One can help us discern our responses in our day.