Posted by: rogermitchell | January 30, 2011

three contentions (ii) tax and Caesar?

This post is part of a series that are looking at the gospels in what for some of us is a new light. To get the context, it will help to look at the previous three posts or so.

All three synoptic writers agree that this question about the poll-tax was a trap, instigated by the Pharisees (Mtt 22:15-16), the Herodians (Mk 12:13) and the chief priests and scribes (Lk 20:19-20). Recent historical research (See for example Richard Horsley: Jesus and Empire; Warren Carter: Matthew and Empire) emphasises the puppet status of these leadership groupings in relation to Caesar’s rule. Luke specifies that the purpose of their question was “so as to deliver him up to the rule and the authority of the governor.” It is important to notice this, as we tend to assume the separation of religion and state as normal, and see Jesus as causing a religious or denominational upset whereas these guys were part of the political leadership of the day. Their question was “Teacher, we know that you are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for you are not partial to any. Tell us then, what do you think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?” Jesus recognised the question as a trap, which he again countered with another question, but first asked them for the coin used for the poll-tax.

I don’t want us to be diverted at this point into whether a poll-tax is a good idea. The citizens of the UK certainly don’t seem to think so, as it is generally agreed that the demonstrations against the poll-tax brought down Margaret Thatcher. But I’m looking at the deeper question raised here of the relation between Jesus and his ecclesia and the ruling authorities in general, from which our views and reactions to all their laws, policies and instructions are based. This is clearly important right now, given the UK government’s punitive cuts and the anti-government demonstrations in North Africa and the Middle East.

The gospels all give us Jesus’ question, the leaders’ answer and his response.  “And he said to them, ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’ They said to him, ‘Caesar’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s’”(Mtt 22:21-22). In the context of the earlier altercation in the temple, and the fact that these leaders clearly represented the Roman authority from whom theirs was delegated, there is no way that his request for the coin and his further question to them could possibly be read to indicate Jesus’ support of the separation of his loving kingdom and their imperial power. It is a reminder instead that they are under Caesar’s rule and “the things that are Caesar’s” are embodied in a colonising system of imperial domination for the purposes of trade and taxation that he has just demonstrated against in no uncertain terms.

It follows that the “things that are Gods” refers to Jesus’ way of engaging with the authorities by the loving strategy of what I am calling kenarchy, which deliberately draws out the powers by direct action at strategic times, and then remaining freely subject to them out of choice, not obligation, while operating in an entirely opposite spirit. The apostle Paul’s well known advice in Romans 13 to “be subject to the powers that be” and the apostle Peter’s similar approach in 1 Peter 2 can only be properly understood in this light. That is to say that we only submit to authority after we have made it clear that the kingdom of God challenges all hierarchical domination. And then our submission consists in behaving as if those authorities are based on God’s loving rule, and so, again at the right time, confronting them with the loving behaviour of the kingdom of God when they behave otherwise. This is one of the reasons for learning to listen to the Spirit. The book of Acts clearly depicts Peter and Paul behaving in exactly this way as they take direct action in word and deed against the powers (See Acts 4: 19-20; Acts 23: 1-3) but subsequently submit to them in life and when necessary in death.



  1. I think the key to life in Christ is freedom. If I live in Him then I am always free from other systems, political or otherwise. I enter and engage with them according to His wishes, and disengage the same way. I am free to create alternatives, peaceful ones. I am free to give of myself in whatever way and means God chooses. And I am free to model the Kingdom in all that I do. And I am free to pray for those in government and those systems and institutions that they too will come into the Kingdom and be free and thereby subvert the system that sustains them.

  2. Cheryl, thanks, I love this! Our friend Mike Love has another way of expressing that freedom. He uses a word that sums up our freedom from the ‘other systems’ as you call them; it is ‘disregard’! It’s as if, because those structures are actually no more than theo-political imaginations, we can simply disregard them – not acknowledge them as having validity. This would mean that sometimes we would engage in the corridors of power and appear to be part of them, but that actually we just walked through the imaginary walls of their structures because to us they are insubstantial. Trouble is, this reminds me of Jesus in his resurrection body walking through walls which are/aren’t solid?? My attempt to disregard political structures not built on love and freedom might sometimes involve a major reality check (big ouch factor) if my freedom is over-realised eschatology, or I’m actually not yet resurrected/dead enough!!! (I guess that would speed up the process….)

  3. yeah, I’ve been through a few of those big ouches – walking into walls instead of thru them. but I suspect such moments are important learning ones or at least that’s my excuse. c.

  4. I find myself having a real struggle with this one Roger.I understand what you are trying to say but find it difficult.When you say “which deliberately draws out the powers by direct action at strategic times, and then remaining freely subject to them out of choice, not obligation, while operating in an entirely opposite spirit.” it seems like a contradiction.
    Can we freely submit out of choice and still operate in the opposite spirit?
    And are you saying we pick which things we challenge on and the ones we leave alone?

  5. Yep, you have got this spot on, and it IS difficult. But just to underline where I am getting this from, I’m simply doing what I encourage everyone to do. Follow Jesus’ steps. If I am right in the way I have expounded the demonstration in the temple, then Jesus lived a loving, self-giving life in the opposite spirit to the leaders of his day as the gospel accounts describe, while waiting for the moment to confront the powers. The incident in the temple was not the only demonstration he made, John 2 probably means that he did this twice, and the cross was in any case the culmination of it all. Also his loving, kenotic behaviour was in a way a confrontational demonstration all the time, and led to him getting crucified.
    But it is clearly still true that Jesus picked his battles, and often moved on to another place or asked people not to tell anyone what he’d been up to, in a way that indicates that he was following the spirit and operating at least partly strategically as he headed towards the cross.

  6. I think the key is always a listening spirit that follows God in obedience. It isn’t our battle and because of Jesus we don’t pay the ultimate price – so if we follow, listening, obedient, then we know when to challenge and when not to. There is no point in wasting our energies (and other things) just to make a point especially if we are then not doing it in God’s way or timing. I think God is actually pretty strategic we just don’t always trust that He can and will get the job done as He tends to do things his own way. Just thinking here. . . c.

  7. Hi,
    It is an interesting debate.
    There is also the passage of Matthew 17: 24-27 about submission to the tax that speaks to me. What wisdom !
    But what concerns me in the passage quoted by Roger is a reminder of Jesus to give God his place … Render unto Caesar … and render to God what is God’s.
    I wonder if the Pharisees in their discussion of living in according with the law (Torah) in this context of domination have not lost sight of the greatness of God and that Jesus uses the trap to put things in their place.
    I agree with the comment of Sheryl on the life of the Spirit and obedience.
    I must be aware of the spirit of empire too in which we live and which took place in us to get out. The two are important for me.

  8. Great post Roger, thanks.

    In terms of finding a way through life in this, Paul reminds us that our battle is not with flesh and blood but with (spiritual) principalities and powers, which would explain the seemingly random choice of when to confront and when to seemingly submit. As noted by Roger, the key is listening to the Holy Spirit, living out of a ralationship rather than trying to make rules/principles. As such we see in part and understand in part, and in my case, obey in part… Robin

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