Text & Context 5: The Taxman, Lk 20.20-26Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bobby's World, Exegesis, Hermeneutics, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Luke
The Taxman: Text and Context #5, Luke 20.20-26
One of the sad ironies of April is that tax day follows closely on the heels of Easter. I am not sure if that is on purpose but one never knows with Caesar. After an email today from a dear friend I spent a few moments reflecting upon the question put to Jesus by the “spies”: “Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
Knowledge of the social setting (i.e. context) of Jesus and Jerusalem at the time sheds abundant light on this story in Luke and the other Synoptic Gospels. It is important to know that Galilee and Jerusalem (Judea) are governed differently even though both are part of the Roman Empire. It is also important to recall that Jesus is in Jerusalem (Judea) when the question is posed (i.e. geography matters).
When Herod the Great died the Romans divided his small realm among his sons. The most relevant for our purposes is Galilee and Judea where Jesus lived and worked. Galilee went to Herod Antipas who ruled that area until A.D. 39. Jerusalem and its environs went to Archelaus. But he was such a jerk and incompetent fool that the Roman Emperor took over and appointed a prefect in A.D. 6 to avoid a revolt.
As Jerusalem was now reorganized as an imperial province the taxes went directly to Caesar, (not the Senate) who even then claimed divine privileges. That same year Judas the Galilean (mentioned in Acts 5.37) propounded the doctrine that it was wrong to send the substance of the city of God with his holy temple to a pagan ruler who also made divine claims. Josephus shares some information relevant to Judas,
“A Galilean named Judas was urging his countryman to resistance, reproaching them if they submitted to paying taxes to the Romans and tolerated human masters after serving God alone. Judas was a teacher with his own party …” (Jewish Wars 2.118)
Later in another work know as Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus says quite a bit more about Judas. I will not quote all of it though.
“Although the Jews were at first intensely angry at the news of their registration on the tax lists, they gradually calmed down, having been persuaded to oppose it no further by the high priest Joazar son of Boethus. Those who succumbed to his arguments unhesitatingly appraised their property. But a certain Judas, a Gaulanite from the city of Gamala, in league with the Pharisee Saddok, pressed hard for resistance ...” (18.3)
Of course the Romans dealt with Judas.
This was never an issue in Galilee. Though, I am sure, taxes were never popular they were still paid to a Jewish leader. So the hot theological debate is is it right to pay “tribute” (phoros, Luke uses the term phoros rather than kenos which appears in Mt and Mk. phoros carries connotations that go beyond mere taxes or duties, cf. BDAG, p. 1064) to a pagan from the city of God. The Pharisees did not believe so and would have thought Jesus unsound at best and perhaps idolatrous at worse if he approved of such a thing.
The brilliance of Jesus’ reply is that they are not using the things of God render tribute. Indeed they are using the pagan’s own resources to “render” to him. The verb “render” also indicates simply returning or giving back what has his own (unholy??) image on it. And because it has an image on it, no Pharisee worth his salt would even want to touch such a thing … much less keep it. Jesus is not endorsing Caesars claims in this passage. He is saying give the pagan what he has already defiled with his image. We on the other hand give all to God that he rightly claims.