At his final trial Jesus faced two criminal charges, one of which was forbidding Jews to pay taxes to Caesar and the other claiming to be King. These charges if proved called for the death penalty. These two charges, which are interconnected allude to a profound truth about God’s sovereignty manifested in Christ; his accusers might have failed to apprehend it but his followers cannot afford to ignore it.
The first incrimination was based on Jesus’ enigmatic answer to the question: “Is it lawfulto pay taxes to Caesar?” Before answering that loaded question, Jesus called the questioners “hypocrites”, because their motive was to drag him into a politically compromising situation between a believing Jew’s total allegiance to God YHWH and a colonized Jew’s humiliating submission to a deified emperor. Scholars still debate as to what Jesus really intended when he responded: “Give Caesar what is Caesar’s, to God what is God’s”.
This utterance has often been misconstrued as an evasive answer of a diplomat; or a scandalous concession that the Caesars’ domain is off limits to God; or that an unbridgeable chasm separates politics and religion. Some have suggested that his answer was crafted to exclude any chance of his being classed as an anti-Roman Zealot. Others reformulate it to read “Give only the tax to Caesar, and all else to God” adding that as a friend of tax-collectors he would not condemn taxation -- an argument that limps, for just as Jesus sought the company of sinners solely to save them and not to encourage them to sin, so too his friendship with the socially and religiously ostracized tax-collectors did not necessarily imply that he endorsed their actions.
Our suggestion is that this Gospel passage makes sense only in the light of two biblical teachings neither of which could be reconciled with the specifically Roman practice of taxation (not any and every form of it). The first is the biblical belief that the land or the earth belongs solely to God and that all people, as God’s community, are its stewards and that no single person can make exclusive claims over it, nor could any civil ruler sell (i.e. make money out of) even a part of it. To attach a price on persons or on the land seemed a violation of God’s sovereignty. This is a corollary drawn from the theonomythat the Bible (particularly the Book of Leviticus) promoted to ensure good governance in ancient Israel.
Hence it was on theological grounds that Jesus, the Jewish Prophet, felt obliged to challenge Caesar’s claim to own the Promised Land and its Chosen People, not for narrow nationalist motives as did the insurrectionists such as the Zealots or the Sicarii. After all this Nation was chosen and this Land was promised precisely to become a witness before other nations in other lands to the justice and love which reigns wherever YHWH alone rules as the King, ¾a mission that Israel regrettably failed to fulfil, as many prophets had complained.
"It was on theological grounds that Jesus, the Jewish Prophet, felt obliged to challenge Caesar’s claim to own the Promised Land and its Chosen People, not for narrow nationalist motives as did the insurrectionists such as the Zealots or the Sicarii. After all this Nation was chosen and this Land was promised precisely to become a witness before other nations in other lands to the justice and love which reigns wherever YHWH alone rules as the King, ¾a mission that Israel regrettably failed to fulfil, as many prophets had complained"
The other biblical teaching that throws light on Jesus’ instruction on taxation concerns the role which monetary units played in countries conquered by Caesar. As is true of all colonized countries, Israel’s national currency was reduced to dust before that of the Roman colonizers. The Jewish shekels collected from the general public had to be converted into Roman currency such as the denarii before the taxes were paid to Caesar, and the resultant financial burden weighed heavily on the Jewish masses. Some have suggested that this ‘foreign-exchange racket’, so to say, would have been taking place in the Jerusalem Temple, which was not merely the Legislature, the Judiciary and the Executive all in one, but also the Central Bank that controlled the country’s finances. Jesus called it “a den of thieves”. This is why, despite the belief that carrying any “image” was a flagrant violation of the second of God’s ten commandments in Israel, its religious leadership perhaps had no scruples in dealing with the Roman coins (denarii) which bore the image of Caesar as well as the blasphemous inscription that Caesar Tiberius (the reigning emperor) was filius divi Augusti, the “Son of God Augustus”. Note, too, that the Poll Tax, a personal tax alluded to in the question put to Jesus, was always paid with a denarius which carried that image and inscription. Would fervent monotheists offer such metal idols to a self-divinized Emperor in forced payment for what the Creator alone owns?
Christ’s Response Decoded
Let us note first that Jesus did not carry such coins. He first invited the man who raised the issue to show him one. Thus Jesus exposed the duplicity of that Jewish questioner, who produced the prohibited coin from his own purse! Then Jesus made him admit that this metal object bore not only an image of the Emperor but also an inscription that trumpeted his divine filiation! The Jewish audience would have immediately contrasted the Emperor’s claim with Israel’s firm belief that we humans are all created to the image of God our Maker and that we carry in our hearts the seal or the inscription that we are God’s sons and daughters. Hence the listeners would have easily caught the politically dangerous implication of Christ’s loaded statement, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”. Let me spell it out in my own words:
That piece of metal has the value, which Caesar as its human maker has given to it by imprinting his own human image and inscription on it. He is, therefore, entitled to have it. But you Jews and Gentiles, you who bear your Divine Maker’s image and carry in your hearts the inscription that you are God’s sons/daughters (the true filii/ filiae divi), belong to God alone and should not allow yourselves to be owned by a mere man, no matter what pompous title he arrogates to himself. Even if the proper place for that piece of metal could be the dustbin of the imperial treasury, you who bear your Maker’s image and inscription are God’s, not Caesar’s possession; and therefore neither the land (which God, its true ownerhas given you to be shared in common) nor any person, should ever be allowed to be desecrated by being valued according to the Money Demon (mammon) which bears a human megalomaniac’s image and inscription.
Christ the King vs. Caesar the Emperor
Let us come now to the second accusation that Jesus challenged Caesar by claiming to be a king. Though the phrase “Kingdom of God” is specifically a New Testament coinage, there are frequent references to God as Israel’s King in the First Testament in critical contrast with the empires of the biblical times (Chaldea, Egypt, Babylon, Syria, Greece, Rome), all of which thrived on slave labour. For YHWH, God of Israel had promised that if Israel obeyed Her commandments (i.e., if YHWH alone was their King), there would never be a destitute class among them (Dt. 15:4).
Jesus personified that promise by his commitment to spread the Reign of YHWH wherein the Law of Love requires that, in imitation of Jesus, leaders be servants of the people (Lk. 22:24-27) and shepherds die for their flock (Jn 10:11) in stark contrast with the Sadducees (local priests) and Herodians, (local politicians) who consolidated their political power over the masses by treacherously collaborating with Rome’s imperious regime. Jesus encountered hostility from these two classes of leaders. For the “Kingdom of God” which Jesus inaugurated in his own person and preached as “Good News” to the non-persons of his day, was a critical alternative not only to Rome’s imperial domination and the Zealots’ violent demagogy but most particularly to the despotism of the Sadducees and Herodians.
Hence Jesus decided to offer the nation a glimpse of his own unique brand of kingship on the day when the Jewish masses welcomed him into Jerusalem as their royal messiah. The city was “in turmoil”, says the evangelist. They threw their clothes on his path (reminiscent of the coronation festival of Jewish kings) and waved branches (as did the Maccabean insurgents, celebrating their victory over the colonizers). The climax was the purging of the Temple, which sent shock waves to the whole nation. The message was clear: “I am here by divine mandate”. And yet the crowd recognized in him a meek messiah and modest monarch who pooh-poohed the pomp and pageantry of princes by riding on a donkeyas prophesized in Zacharia 9:9, yes on a donkey, the much ridiculed and yet harmless beast of burden and the cheapest means of transport available to the poor. Thus Jesus intimated that His Reign dawns among the powerless and is marked by simplicity; that his stern will blended with a gentle heart, that in him justice merged with mercy. No wonder the crowd burst spontaneously into a chorus of prayer, ho-sanna which means “Save, we beseech”. For in this King they recognized their long awaited Saviour.
"Among the most irritated spectators of that event were those same priestly hierarchy and political leaders, who were subservient to Caesar to subdue the masses. It was they who were most threatened by this Charismatic King’s sudden (albeit temporary) popularity. Thus on Friday of that same week they reneged Israel’s implicit profession of faith [“We have no King but YHWH”] and instigated the crowd to declare in one voice before Pilate the Roman Judge: “We have no King but Caesar” (Jn. 1 9:15c)"
Among the most irritated spectators of that event were those same priestly hierarchy and political leaders, who were subservient to Caesar to subdue the masses. It was they who were most threatened by this Charismatic King’s sudden (albeit temporary) popularity. Thus on Friday of that same week they reneged Israel’s implicit profession of faith [“We have no King but YHWH”] and instigated the crowd to declare in one voice before Pilate the Roman Judge: “We have no King but Caesar” (Jn. 1 9:15c). There was no room for any other royal claimant. Jesus was, therefore, martyred for being a King who came to save rather than enslave his people.
Thus the judicial process that eventually criminalised Jesus seems to reveal a clash between two Kingswho wereseeking the people’s allegiance, Caesar, the autocratic emperor and Christ, the Servant-King, each claiming to be the “Son of God” but using diametrically opposed means to sustain their respective claims: Death-threatening POWER by the one; and death-embracing LOVE by the other. The final outcome of this battle between Imperial Power and Divine Love is registered in the subsequent events and can be summed as follows:
On that fatal Friday (Sabbath Eve), Caesar’s Imperial Law, invoked by priests and politicians, nailed Christ to a cross as a fake king, destined to die like a criminal and disappear from history. But on that same Friday, the Cosmic Calendar registered a New Era for humanity as Christ converted that ignominious instrument of torture into his Royal Thronefrom where he would not only promulgate his Law of Love to all nations but continue to live and reignin bold defiance of the Caesars of all times. That was when his Fatal Friday became our “Good Friday”.