Luke 20:20–26 . . . Bible Study Summary with Videos and Questions
To Whom Should We Pay Taxes?
The spiritual leaders continued to reject Jesus as their Messiah. Once they realized that his parable about the vine growers (see last week's summary) was about them, their hatred of him and their desire to have him killed intensified. Finally they sent spies to him, disguised as righteous men, to catch him in some blaspheming statement. The spies came up with a trick question to ask Jesus: "Is it right [that is, lawful, in accordance with the Law of God] for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" For if a Jew were to pay taxes to Rome, then he'd be acknowledging Rome's right to rule over Israel. So the question was loaded politically and religiously. The general agreement among the Jews at the time was that it was morally wrong to pay taxes to the hated Roman Empire. So if Jesus said it was right to pay taxes to Rome, he'd alienate himself from Israel politically and religiously. If he said that it was wrong to pay taxes to Rome, then he was inciting rebellion by and against Rome.
Jesus detected their trickery, requested a coin, and asked the spies, "Whose image and inscription are on it?" They answered, "Caesar's." He replied, "Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." The lesson was this: The money belongs to Caesar but you belong to God. Let the world have its coins, but let God have your life. As believers, we're to "seek first [God's] kingdom and his righteousness..." (Matthew 6:33). Honor Caesar with your money, but not as if he were a god; honor the only living God and his beloved Son with your life, your worship, your time, and your service to him. Jesus had given the spies a great answer; even our Lord's enemies marveled at his logic.
The payment of taxes has never been popular: Taxes are not a voluntary contribution. To fail to pay one's taxes, or to pay less than one should, is a sure way to get the attention of the government, and to discover how strong it feels about your proper payment of taxes to it. Paying taxes is a practical acknowledgment of a government's right to rule over you by your submission to its authority. Specifically in our text, Jesus is being asked whether or not a law-abiding Jew (one keeping the law of Moses, that is) should pay taxes to Caesar. There is a more general question at issue, however. The interchange between Jesus and his questioners deals with the relationship between God and government. Today's short passage has much to be revealed. As readers and hearty students of Luke's gospel, let's look carefully at each verse and its meaning.
Trying to Trick Jesus (v. 20)
The goal of the leaders of the people is reported in v. 20: They intended to "catch Jesus in something he said" and to "hand him over to the power and authority of the governor." Let's briefly consider both elements of their goal.
First, they tried to catch Jesus in his "words," for it was by his words that he put these leaders of the people to shame. And by his words, the leaders supposed, Jesus would be eliminated. It's significant that the leaders couldn't and wouldn't attempt to discredit or accuse Jesus of any of his "actions." His life was impeccable; his miracles were irrefutable. What a testimony to our Lord's sinless life and limitless power!
Second, they sought to "hand Jesus over to the governor." The solution to their problem, as the Jewish leaders reasoned, was a political one, not a spiritual one. They didn't attempt to deal with Jesus in any way prescribed by Old Testament Law. Instead, they worked with a focus on secular government. Indeed, they turned to the very government that they'd despised. They'd question Jesus about paying taxes to Rome, expecting him to forbid it, yet they looked to Rome to deal with Jesus. They turned toward Rome, rather than allow Jesus to govern them. Differing factions of Israel had joined together to rid themselves of Jesus, the Messiah. Their goal was to put Jesus in trouble with the Romans, specifically the governor, Pontius Pilate, the only ruler in Jerusalem with the authority to exercise the death penalty. They wanted him arrested, but needed a provocation — great enough for Rome to react — because the people as a whole supported Jesus. So the spying scribes and chief priests became unrighteous themselves, pretending to be what they weren't, in a botched attempt to turn him over to the Romans.
Hypocrisy and Insincere Flattery (v. 21)
Before the Israelite leaders spring their trick question on Jesus, they apparently feel the need to gain his confidence by using insincere flattery: "Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth." For Jesus, the model servant, their flattery bounced like raindrops off a raincoat. What the spies said was true: Jesus did "speak and teach what is right," and he didn't show partiality but taught with full integrity. Strategically, the leaders attempted to make Jesus feel comfortable before them, possibly nodding as they praised him, hoping that their false praise and flattery would be able to force Jesus to carelessly blurt out his true antagonism for the Romans.
This event oozes with hypocrisy. The Israelite leaders appeared to: respect Jesus as a teacher, a man of truth, but didn't; desire to know the truth but didn't; want to obey the government, but were unsure of whether they could or should, according to the Law; have a problem with government, although their problem was Gentiles; prefer to give to God, rather than to government, but, as we saw in a previous parable, not wanting to give God his due; have God as their priority and government as being secondary, when, in reality, they'd chosen government over God, as would become most evident at the cross — "We have no king but Caesar," the chief priests answered (John 19:15).
Jesus' View of Their Trickery (v. 22)
"Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" In addition to property taxes, Romans required an annual payment of one denarius — a day's wage — per adult male. The Jerusalem Sanhedrin itself was responsible for collecting that particular head tax. If Jesus had agreed that Roman taxation was just, then perhaps the chief priests could turn public opinion against him with the same vehemence with which tax collectors were hated. But if, as they suspected, Jesus secretly despised the Romans' right to occupy Israel and to place burdensome taxes on its citizens, perhaps they hoped to get him to say something that would be construed as "rebellion against Rome." Perhaps, too, they could paint him as a zealot, striving to fight to free Israel from Roman domination.
Jesus' View of Paying Taxes (v. 23–24)
Seeing through their duplicity, notice how Jesus answers their trick question with a follow-up question. He does this often in his ministry: 11:53–54; 20:1–4; Matthew 22:34–42; Mark 8:11–12; John 8:6–7. Jesus refers to their trickery as "duplicity" (NIV) or "craftiness" (KJV); the Greek panourgia, "cunning, craftiness, trickery," literally "readiness to do anything."
It's important to recognize that the head tax had to have been paid with a denarius, the very coin that Jesus asked his opponents to show him. A denarius wasn't a generic coin of the day. It was that form of money to be used for paying taxes to Caesar. In Jesus' day there were different kinds of money. In his gospel, Matthew told of how Jesus paid the "two-drachma temple tax" (Matthew 17:24–27). That tax wasn't paid with a denarius but with the drachma, which is why money changers were exchanging money in the courts of the temple — the temple tax couldn't be paid with a denarius. The denarius, a Roman coin, had Caesar's name inscribed on it, along with his likeness. When Jesus asked to be shown a denarius, it was because that coin was the only coin used to pay taxes to Rome.
The fact that the spying chief priests had in their possession one or more denarii indicates that they should have already known the answer; that they'd even had such a coin was ironic, since it bore an inscription that the Jews considered blasphemous: "Tiberius Caesar, son of the deified Augustus," and on the obverse an image of the emperor's mother, Livia, as an incarnation of the goddess Pax (peace), with the words "High Priest."
Jesus' Astonishing Answer (v. 25)
Jesus' answer is marvelous in its balance: "Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." He's saying: If the coinage bears Caesar's image, then it indicates that Caesar is the ruler who should be submitted to when paying taxes. But Jesus continues, ". . . and [give] to God what is God's," perhaps asking his hearers (and readers) a very challenging question: Whose image appears on your life? All Jews would have had to acknowledge that it was to be God's image that appeared in full force on their lives (Genesis 1:27). Jesus was saying to the Jews, and to us today, that with our bodies, minds, and spirits, we ourselves dutifully and reverently owe allegiance to God.
Likely, we pay our taxes because we fear the penalty for cheating. But are our motives to serve God more exalted than that? Do we serve him because we fear displeasing him? Or do we serve him because we love him? Hearty disciples: Whose coinage are you using? Whose stamp and image do you bear on your soul? God's? In truth, you owe God your full allegiance — you're to love him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
The lesson that the Pharisees and chief priests learned from this encounter was "Don't ask Jesus trick questions". But we disciples must learn and appreciate two important duties: (1) to submit willingly to the requirements of civil government; and more importantly, (2) to give our all in tribute to God, for it's his image that we must bear in this world.
The Outcome (v. 26)
Once again, those who'd endeavored to trap Jesus in his words had only trapped themselves. The Lord's answer, as well as the Lord's absolute and total control of the situation, was disarming. Mouths seemed to have been gaping; minds were reeling. How could it have gone so wrong? It seemed like such a great plan. But Jesus had won . . . yet again. But fools will rush in, as next week's passage will show. The answer that our Lord gave the spies wasn't expected. They gave him two choices, one of which he had to choose, or so they thought. But he refused, telling them, in essence, that both choices were true: (1) One must give government its due, which includes taxes; (2) one must give God his due, which is the entirety of one's heart, soul, mind, and strength. Too often, the two obligations of ours are not in conflict, as the questioners seemed to have assumed.
When we fail to depend on God, we inevitably turn to human means and instrumentality. How often we depend more on politics than on God's power to solve our problems? We must find him sufficient to meet our every challenge. Let's use God's armor to battle and defeat spiritual warfare; let's not use the secular crutch of politics. Let's look to God — not to men — for the establishment of righteousness on the earth.
- Q. 1 What's the strategy behind the scribes and chief priests asking their trick question?
- Q. 2 In what way did the spies act as hypocrites by pretending they were something that they weren't?
New International Version (NIV) [To view it in a different version, click here; also listen to chapter 20.]
† Watch this passage-specific video clip from Jesus Film Project titled "Paying Taxes to Caesar."
Paying Taxes to Caesar
20Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor. 21So the spies questioned him: "Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. 22Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?"
23He saw through their duplicity and said to them, 24"Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?"
"Caesar's," they replied.
25He said to them, "Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."
26They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent.