Render Unto Caesar? Jesus' Subversive Submission

What you think "Render Unto Caesar" means is probably wrong.  That's right.  Mark 12:13-19 is a widely known, and generally misunderstood passage.  Here it is in the TNIV.
 13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, "Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren't swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn't we?"
    But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. "Why are you trying to trap me?" he asked. "Bring me a denarius and let me look at it." 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, "Whose image is this? And whose inscription?"
       "Caesar's," they replied.
    17 Then Jesus said to them, "Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's."
       And they were amazed at him.

In order to understand this passage, we really need to unpack several layers of the context.

The first thing we need to know:  Israel was an occupied nation.  This was deeply disturbing to Jewish faith.  Jews were Exodus people.  They were free for several hundred years in the beginning under David and Solomon and others, but then had been conquered by Babylon and exiled and when finally brought back, had never really been free, but always under the thumb of a global empire.  Now it was Rome, and one of the most visible and offensive signs of this occupation were the taxes. The tax represented the fact that the People of God were inexplicably subject to a sinful Gentile kingdom.

The second thing: Pharisees and Herodians are in cahoots…and they had wildly different approaches to how to relate to Rome, to the occupying global super-power.
·    The Pharisees taught that if Israel was only holy, pure enough, then God would come return to them the kingdom, overthrow Rome.  They were prepared to out Jesus to the crowds as a filthy supporter of Rome if he endorsed the tax as legitimation of Roman rule.  These were the religious conservatives, and they were out to expose Jesus as a liberal.
·    The Herodians were a political party and little is known about them.  What we do know is enough to explain their role in this scene.  If Jesus had said “Don’t pay your taxes” or anything else opposing Rome, they were prepared to tattle-tale, to go tell Pontius Pilate that Jesus was guilty of a strait forward capital charge: inciting a rebellion against Roman rule.  These were the religious liberals and they were out to expose Jesus as a radical conservative. 
·     So with these two poised to destroy him, Jesus is between a rock and a hard place.

The third thing really highlights the meaning of the first part of Jesus’ iconic response.   Jesus holds up the coin and he asks “Whose image is this?”  And when they identify Caesar, Jesus says the only line people know from this passage by heart, and we all know it from the King James Version.  Say it with me "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's."

At first, this sounds like a pretty straightforwardly submissive posture toward Rome.  And many have taken this saying to mean that Jesus is acknowledging the rightful place of the government in human society.  Indeed, he is, on one level saying – "yes, pay your tax." The Bible does teach that the government has a role in God’s design for human society (see Romans 13 for an example.) 

But this is one of the many places where knowing what Jesus means, requires an effort to get inside the minds of 1st century Jews.  In order to do that we need to know a little Intertestamental History. 

Did you know that there is a 300 year gap between the Old Testament and the New Testament?  Many of the best historical records we have about what happened during those years is in what is called the Apocrypha.  Now, we Protestants don’t acknowledge the Apocrypha as inspired Scripture (even Catholics say they’re on a second tier) but we do actually believe it can be useful for people wanting to know the God of the Israel and Father of Jesus Christ.  One of the ways it is really helpful is in filling in the Intertestamental events. 

Something really interesting happened about 200 years before Jesus came on the scene.  Israel was under the rule of Syria (aka the Selucids,) and they rose up in a rebellion called the Maccabean revolt.  The Jews won their freedom and actually ruled themselves for a precious 30 years.  And do you know what their rebel cry was? 

As they were fighting back the occupying superpower, their rebel cry was “pay back the Gentiles what they deserve – and obey the commands of the law.”  

Notice any similarities with what Jesus said?  

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s!

Now when the Maccabeans said it, they meant – “we’re gonna pay back those Gentiles violence with violence!” Or, we might say “were gonna give them a dose of their own medicine,” or even “were gonna pay back those Gentiles in their own currency.”  So when Jesus said “Render unto Caesar what is Caesars”, we can understand that though on the surface he is saying “yes, pay your taxes” he has encoded his answer with a bit of a rebel flair, as if he’s saying “Pay back the gentiles in their own coin!” 

Jesus’ answer is at the same time submissive and subversive to the ruling empire.  Jesus is teaching what one theologian called “revolutionary subordination.”  

This double entendre is how Jesus brilliantly avoids having either the Herodians or the Pharisees turn him in.  If what he said simply meant "Yes, pay your taxes" as many today believe, then the Pharisees would have effectively been able to convince the people that that he lacked loyalty to God and his people and endorsed the sinful Gentile empire.  

The fourth thing we need to know is that this is not just any coin.  

On this coin would have been an image of Tiberius Caesar and around the rim, instead of saying “In God We Trust” it said “Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus” and on the back it said “High Priest.”  You don’t have to be a scholar to guess that for Jews these coins were offensive, not just politically, but religiously.  Son of the Divine?!  High Priest?  Blasphemy!  But more offensive than this was the blatant contradiction to second commandment.  

"You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below....Exodus 20:4

The Jews of Jesus’ day took the second commandment so seriously that they debated whether it was permissible to make carved images of flowers and plants, but there was no question about people.  Everyone agreed that carved images of people was blatant idolatry.  And with the inscription around it, this was beyond doubt.  This coin has an idolatrous image of Caesar on it. 

And Jesus capitalizes on this fact is the most genius way, which leads us to the fifth and final thing.
The fifth and final observation is really what we need to walk away with.   Have you ever noticed that Jesus is often asked questions, and usually his answers are outside of the box?  Often he refuses the parameters of the question...he asks a different question, or he tells a story. 

In our story, people are asking a rather simple question, "Should we pay taxes...yes or no?"  By the way, Jesus hates "yes" or "no" questions.  He never gives a simple "yes" or "no"-- he always adds something.  Here Jesus says: “Give Caesar these measly coins, but what’s really important is that you give your whole self to God.” 

Generally people think that “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's” is the punchline of Jesus’ teaching in this passage...but actually what he wants people to leave thinking about is “Give to God what is God’s”.   So that’s what we’re going to conclude thinking about.

Jesus' teaching is recalling Genesis 1:27 -

So God created human beings in his own image,
       in the image of God he created them;
       male and female he created them.  

Give to God what is God's, eh?  And what belongs to God?  What bears God's image?

We might paraphrase Jesus as saying: “Well, if it’s got Caesar’s image on it, then give this worthless thing back to him, but while you’re at it, give to God what bears God’s image, cause Caesar has no claim on people.  His reach is limited to some dumb circles of medal, to God belongs humans and all creation and the actual stuff of life.  It’s me, not money that makes the world go round." 

Jesus’ primary teaching in this passage isn’t about relating to the government, it’s about relating to God.  And when you think about it, this shouldn’t be a surprise.  Jesus was always directing questions away from lesser thing to greater things.  

What is Jesus calling us to do

There is a popular misconception about the meaning of tithing.  Sometimes people, even pastors, will say that we tithe in order to give back to God a portion of what he has given us.  And it’s true that we should remember that God has given us everything we have.  But what is really supposed to be happening when we tithe is that we use a portion of our resources to visibly pledge to use all of our resources as stewards.  It’s not like we can say, "Hey God, I’ll give you back 10% if you’ll just let me use the 90% however I see fit."  God wouldn’t go for that deal, even if you were to say, "I’ll give you 90% and use 10% selfishly."  God wants, God demands, nothing less that all of it. 

Jesus is not interested in a piece of your life.  Not even a big piece.  John Ortberg says "Jesus isn’t interested in your spiritual life, he’s interested in your life.  All of it."  This is the central teaching of this passage.  Give to God what is God’s – that’s your very self.  


  1. Chris. Great stuff. Brings to mind the verse about don't fear one who can kill the body, fear one who can destroy the soul (paraphrase, obviously). Even our physical lives are the little things. Can we quote the Red Hot Chili Peppers on your blog? Don't know if you evangelical types are allowed to that. But we should just "give it away, give it away, give it away now". Let go of that which is small in order to take hold of that which is infinite.

  2. Jay, We evangelicals prefer to quote U2 over the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but I'm happy to find grace and truth wherever it crops up. :) Thanks for the comment.

  3. Glad you're getting people talking about this stuff, man. I think subversive submission is the right way to put it.

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  5. Jesus meant precisely what he said. Give Caesar what belongs to Caesar! What belongs to Caesar? Nothing! Ergo, to elaborately interpret what Jesus said: "Give Caesar nothing and for God's sake don't give him anything that is yours, not even Roman coins with his face on them, for a face on a coin has no bearing on ownership, which is determined by whoever possesses the coin (unless stolen), for in order for anything to serve as money it must be a bearer instrument where possession determines ownership. If you do have any of those blasphemous coins with their idolatrous inscription and graven image, throw them away or use them to buy food and distribute it to the poor, and henceforth don't touch them, but do not throw them Caesar's way, for that notorious pedophile will only use them to continue his wholesale wars, violent conquests, plunder, enslavement and murders. Furthermore, nothing belongs to Caesar, for everything in his possession was obtained in violation of one of my Father's Commandments and thus not lawfully his. And don't forget Scripture declares at least six times, as in Psalm 24 verse 1, 'The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it,' which leaves nothing for poor old Caesar."

    So resist paying taxes by all means short of violence, coercion or dishonesty, which are the means of tax collectors and tyrants, not Jesus' disciples. Remember the taxes you do pay will be used by agents of Satan himself, who tempted Jesus by offering all the power and authority of all the kingdoms of the world, telling Jesus--who did not contradict him--that such power and authority had been given to him and he gives it to whoever he pleases. (Luke 2)