11 Apr 2007

Text & Context 5: The Taxman, Lk 20.20-26

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bobby's World, Exegesis, Hermeneutics, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Luke

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.

Enjoy the Beatles video …

Tax Season follows Easter Closely, 🙂

11 Responses to “Text & Context 5: The Taxman, Lk 20.20-26”

  1. John Roberts Says:

    Excellent insights. Thanks especially for the tip on “tax” vs. “tribute.” I’m quickly coming to Luke 20 in my preaching so it was very helpful, and much appreciated (I will be sure to give credit where credit is due!)

  2. Wade Tannehill Says:


    First I am honored to be counted a “dear friend” and the feeling is mutual. Thanks for helping me out in my exegesis. You really pulled together for me what I had been reading in J. A. Fitzmyer, N. T. Wright, and L. T. Johnson. You even added more! Thepoint about Judea and Galilee being governed differently adds a lot! Maybe I’ll just let you start exegeting all my texts and I’ll just do the homiletical part :-).

    Fitzmyer draws from this passage that one should give back to Caesar that which bears his image while giving back to God that which bears his image.

    Great post!

  3. Steve Puckett Says:

    Good post and good video. Reminds me that I need to incorporate more “original videos” in my preaching. If there was only more time!

    Pepperdine looms ahead.


  4. Dee O'Neil Andrews Says:

    Ah, the tax man cometh and we must pay him, you would tell us.

    But you’re right. It’s entirely too soon after Easter. Although I’m “fixin’ to” go deposit my state tax refund check, so I’m not howling too loud. (But of course, we paid in tons of tax before we get the meager refund back so I still grouse because all of our tax money here in Mississippi seems to be going for new roads to haul all the people to the big casinos!)

    Can’t win.

    Meanwhile, thanks for the post. I learned a whole lot.


  5. Danny Says:

    I usually do not like thinking about the taxman, but you put a different twist on things!

  6. Ben Overby Says:

    Good stuff, Bobby, as usual. I’d only add that the Galileans were especially oppressed, which probably accounts for so much of Jesus’ time being spent in those villages. The fields are white where oppression is ripe. Antipas was honoring his buddy back in Rome, building Tiberius with money “contributed” to him by the Galileans. Rome demande their ordinary share. And of course, the temple tax had to be paid. It was relentless.

    I like your exegesis with reference to Jesus’ response, and I only add that his response “render to Ceasar what is Ceasar’s and to God what is God’s,” his listeners would have seen proportion. Ceaser gets just a little. God gets the whole person.

    Blessing from a sunny columbus, GA, in anticipation of a drive tomorrow back into the extended winter of New York.

  7. cwinwc Says:

    For some reason your post reminded me of a time when I was playing softball. A new player came into our dugout and we were taking the time to be friendly and make him feel welcomed. That is until he answered one of those “what do you do George” questions with those 3 dreaded letters, “I.R.S.”

    You could have heard a pin drop in that dugout.

  8. Josh Says:

    Very interesting.

  9. Matt Says:

    Wasn’t the distate for the tax-collector because they would basically pay in advance an amount to be collected for an area and then go and collect that and more from the people and pocket it?

  10. Limblog Says:

    One of the grossest mis-uses of “Render to Caesar was in a film starring, I think Gregory Peck, in which a christian pacifist farmer is persuaded to use his skills with a shot gun in the service of Uncle Sam. Remember that?

  11. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:


    I think you are thinking of Sgt. York who was played by Gary Cooper. I have not seen that film in years. But you are correct a gross misuse of the phrase.

    Bobby V

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