Matthew 22, "Render Unto Caesar", Correctly Understood

by Gregory C. Allred, PhD

The episode of the coin, described in Matthew 22, is commonly misunderstood. Typically, the words Render unto Caesar are taken out of context, to imply that Jesus advocated payment of taxes. In fact, the opposite is true, and Jesus was born, lived, taught, and died an enemy of the State.

The lesson of the coin is misunderstood because the context and most of the story is ignored. Let's look at the version in Matthew chapter 22, paying attention to the context and the details the author thought significant enough to include.

15 Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk.

16 And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men.

17 Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?

Here we have the Pharisees and Herodians, who were usually enemies, conspiring together, to flatter and trap Jesus, their common enemy. The Pharisees opposed the Roman occupation and the vassal king Herod; they also represented the established religion. Conversely, the Herodians tried to gain political favor by supporting King Herod. Together they approached Jesus with a clever trap, asking him in the hearing of both Jews and Herodians, if it were lawful (under Jewish law) to pay a tax to Caesar. Now, how could this have been a trap if the answer was simply "Yes, pay your taxes", as is so often thought by modern Christians? But had Jesus answered afirmatively, then the Jews would have turned on him; had he said "Don't pay the tax", the Romans would have killed him as an insurrectionist. Jesus brilliantly evaded the trap:

18 But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites?

Now, why did Jesus call them "hypocrites" at this time? Was it only a slur? No—there was a specific reason, which is the tribute money itself, as we will see.

19 Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny.

Why did he ask someone to produce the coin? What was the point of showing the coin? The picture above shows an example of what was most likely the tribute money. As we see, it bears two graven images of the god, Tiberius Caesar, and two blasphemous superscriptions. An observant Jew wouldn't even touch such a coin, let alone carry it in his pocket and readily produce it. Thus we have the hypocrisy.

Now Jesus gets to the point:

20 And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription?

The graven image is of the god Tiberius Caesar, and the superscription is utter blasphemy:

TI(berius) CAESAR DIVI AUG(usti) F(ilius) AUGUSTUS
Caesar Augustus Tiberius son of the Divine Augustus,


The Great High Priest

What is it to a Jew to carry a graven image of a pagan god? Idolatry. Who is truly God, the Son of God, and the Great High Priest, but Jesus Christ? Therefore, what is the superscription that says Caesar is both God and the Great High Priest? Blasphemy.

21 They say unto him, Caesar's. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.

What is God's? Everything. What is Caesar's? The coin clearly shows the things which are Caesar’s: idolatry and blasphemy.

22 When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.

Why did they marvel at this, if it was only something as simple as "pay the tax"? They marveled because Jesus had given a single answer acceptable to both the Jews, who understood the implication of idolatry and blasphemy as being the things that belong to Caesar, and to the Romans and Herodians, who heard only "render unto Caesar".

It’s unfortunate when Christians ignore the marvelous lesson and hear only "pay the tax".

© 2022 Gregory C. Allred, PhD

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