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On Matthew 22 And Taxation

Next to Romans 13, there are few passages in scripture used to justify the existence of the taxation more often than Matthew 22. In this passage (particularly in verses 15-22) the pharisees attempted to trap Jesus by asking him whether or not it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. The verse that many people go to to advocate for taxation is verse 21 in which Jesus says “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21, ESV). On its face this verse seems to indicate that Jesus was advocating for the legitimacy of taxation as a means to fund civil government, but upon further examination of the text we will find that this is far from the case.

The first thing that is often overlooked by those who attempt to use Matthew 22:21 as a prooftext in favor of taxation is the context of the question that the pharisees ask Jesus. In verse 15 we find that the pharisees were plotting to entangle Jesus in his words, and that this was the sole motivation for the question, rather than the pharisees genuinely attempting to understand whether paying taxes was lawful. Understanding the pharisees motivation in asking the question is a crucial piece of context to having a correct grasp of Jesus’ response to the question. The pharisees knew that if Jesus came right out and answered yes to their question that the Jews would reject him as a pawn of the oppressive Roman government. They also knew that if he were to answer no that the Roman authorities would crack down on him and his followers for spreading a message that was subversive to Caesar’s rule.

Jesus’ answer then, is a (very effective) attempt to sidestep the trap that the pharisees laid out for him. This is not to say that his answer was dishonest or inaccurate, but rather it means that he intentionally hid the actual wisdom of what he was saying from the pharisees who did not have ears to hear. With the context of the question established, now it’s time to examine what Jesus actually said in response. First of all, Jesus called them out for their attempt to trap him saying “Why do you put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” This start to his response goes to show that he was well aware of the trap. After they brought him a denarius he followed up with “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” and they answered him “Caesar’s.” Jesus then finishes his answer with “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Many people interpret this answer to mean that the money belongs to Caesar, but this is a faulty interpretation of Jesus’ teaching in this passage. That Caesar’s image is on the coin does not make it his any more than if I were to put my image on something I own and then exchange it with someone else. That item ceases to be my property as soon as I give it to someone else, regardless of whose image is on it, and scripture’s teaching on property makes this quite clear. So, when Jesus says to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” he is not arguing that the money belongs to Caesar at all, he is simply dodging the trap of the pharisees. Likewise, nowhere in this text does Jesus justify the practice of taxation. Jesus does not say that it is lawful or unlawful to pay taxes, nor does he say that it is lawful to charge taxes. A good analogy to understand this is in Jesus’ teaching on turning the other cheek. In Matthew 5 when Jesus commands us to offer the other cheek to someone who slaps us on the right, he is not legitimizing cheek-slapping, nor is he legitimizing theft when he tells us to give our cloak to those who take our tunic.

To argue from Jesus’ response to the pharisees in Matthew 22 that he is saying that Caesar taking taxes by force is a legitimate action is a massive logical and hermeneutical leap that is not supported by scripture, either in the immediate text or in the broader teachings of scripture on the subject overall. Our calling to live peaceably with all men does not make any man initiating violence against us a righteous action, rather our calling to be peaceful shows that we are to forgive as Christ forgave us. Jesus’ answer to the trap laid by the pharisees in Matthew 22 is not an example of him legitimizing taxation.

Published in R Campbell Sproul