The Politics of Jesus (Luke 20:20~26)


What is the topic significant?

Hong Kong will be handed over to China Authority in less than 100 days. More and more Hong Kong people have interest in the discussion of political issues. It can be reflected from their active participation in the forum of radio program. Christian have no exception. Talks on the political issues in Christian perspective are popular. The passage selected for this paper (Luke 20:20~26) is commonly accepted as the only teaching of Jesus on the political issue. Moreover, it may be the foundation of the theology of Paul and Peter on the political issues as well. (cf. Rm. 13:1~7, Pe. 2:13~17)

There are two questions worth for our studies. Firstly, what is the political view of Jesus? Secondly, how should a Christian live in the tension of the two kingdoms? We need to handle the political duties on the earth while we need to devote ourselves to the God as well. Is there any conflict between them? These are our concern in the followed exegesis.

What will be discussed in this paper?

There are three major divisions in this paper: exegesis and exposition, theological implications, and application. The studies of the setting, parallel text, form, historical background and detail exposition will be introduced in the first division. Then, theological implication will be discussed. Finally, meanings to the Christian in the 1st Century and to us will be shared in the division of application.

Exegesis and Exposition

Before introducing the detail exegesis and exposition, some basic studies on the translation, parallel text, form and historical background will be discussed first. Bearing in mind the concepts and questions raised in these sections can help one to have better understanding of the followed exegesis.

Setting: Jesus enters into Jerusalem with a Messianic (but a humble king’s) image. Then, he has different confrontations and theological discussions with the religious leaders (tested in the temple). The first confrontation is his cleaning of the temple in a prophetic act and using a parable to illustrate how the nation is lost. As the religious leaders know that Jesus uses the parable to illustrate their "irreligious" mind, they decide to send spies in order to catch something from Jesus’ teaching that can be the evidence of treason. They hope that Jesus, their enemies, can be sentenced to the death penalty through the hand of Roman authority.

What are the problems of the translations of the passage?

After studying the original text and comparing different Chinese and English translations, it is found that there are no perfect translations. Each translation has its own strength and weakness. The inaccurate translations are discussed as follows.

In Chinese Union version, the v.22 is translated as "the spies ask if they ‘can’ render to Caesar." However, one "can" do something but it is not "right". For example, one "can" kill another but it is not "right". The Chinese Living Bible translates the phrase as "if it is ‘right’". It may be a better translation, but the best translation should be "Is it ‘lawful’…" when the context is studied. It is adopted by KJV, RSV, and NASB. This translation will be further studied in the followed exegesis.

All Chinese translations miss the word kai at the beginning of the verse 23. The word may mean "and" or "but". It should be translated as "but" in the context. This translation is adopted by KJV, RSV and NASB.

In v.24, the word ‘me’ (strong number:1473) should be understood in a ‘emphatic way’. NASB mades the emphasize by capitalize the word ‘Me’ instead of ‘me’ used in other translations.

In v.25, most english translations on the pronouncement of Jesus seem to be too long and too complex. When the original Greek text is referred, only 11 words are used. Thus, the following translation is suggested:

Then Give what is Caesar’s to Caesar

And what is God’s to God.

In v. 26, the Greek word "thauma’zo" (strong number 2296) is commonly translated as "marvelous" or "astonishment". However, this word should has the meaning of "admiration" as well. Thus, the Chinese Living Bible using the phrase "they are ‘admired’…" is considered as a better translation.

What are the differences between the passage and other parallel text?

Through the comparison of the parallel text, the redactional modifications of Luke can be found. The modifications show the unique writing intention of Luke. After identifying the major differences, they will be further discussed in the followed exegesis. The parallel texts of the passage are Mt 22:15~22 and Mk 12:13~17. Only the text of Mark will be used for the comparison because it is accepted as the only source of Lukan.

  1. In Luke, the identification of the spies (Lk. 20:20) is not mentioned while Mark mentions that they are the Pharisees and Herodians (Mk. 12:13).
  2. In Mk. 12:14b, the formulation is "we know that you are…"; however, Luke focuses on the teaching of Jesus instead. Luke states that "what you say and teach is correct…" (Lk. 20:21b).
  3. The Lantian loanword Kensos that may refer to "head tax" (Mk. 12:14) is replaced with the Greek word phoros (tax, poll tax) (Lk. 20:22) in Luke.
  4. The term "trickery" (Lk. 20:23) is used instead of "hypocrisy" (Mk. 12:15) but there is no significant change of the meaning. Finally, the phrase "Why do you try to put me to the test?" (v.15) is not used in Luke.

What is the form of the passage?

It is commonly accepted that the form is pronouncement-story with the weight falling upon the pronouncement of Jesus in v.25. It should be noted that the pronouncement cannot be transmitted without the narrative context.

What is the view of the mass on the tax?

The view of the mass on the tax can gives us a historical background why the question "Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?" (NASB) is asked. On the other hand, if the mass want to know the answer, what is their expected answer?

As it is mentioned above, the word phoros that can refer to any kinds of tax is used in Luke. However, the word should refer to the particular foreign poll tax structure enforced by Roman Empire when the historical context is considered.

The Jewish does resist to the tax system of Roman Empire. There have even been riot and rebellion when the system is implemented during the conduction of a major census by Quirinius in Palestine in A.D. 6~7. Why does the Jewish not like the tax? Three reasons can be summarized. Firstly, the tax rate is extremely high. The Roman one is considered as an add-on of the heavy religious tax. It is believed that the total tax rate can be as high as 40%. Moreover, the rate can be increased at an unpredictable rate. As a result, many farmers fail in earning the bread for their family and even lose their land. These lead to the increasing number of unemployment and hostile attitude toward Roman Empire. Secondly, it is quite natural to have antipathy to foreign domination. Finally, the Jewish has the conviction of "subject to God alone". Thus, they believe that the "render to Caesar" is a treason against God because it gives honor to the emperor instead of God.

In this historical context, what will be the expectation of the mass on Jesus’ political view on tax? With the sympathetically understanding of their terrible and emotional situation, one can expect that the mass is eager to know Jesus’ political view because he is considered as the political Messiah who may stop the tax system and bring political reformation. However, does Jesus’ answers fulfil their wants?

What are the detail exegesis and exposition?

Exegesis and exposition will be conducted in a manner of verse by verse.

v.20 As the religious leaders are lost in the previous challenge of the Jesus’ authority and their "irreligious" behavior is pinpointed, they "watch closely" for an opportunity to remove their enemy. They send out spies who pretend to be "sincerely" in order to "catch Jesus out in his speech". As it is mentioned above, Luke does not mention that the spies are Pharisees and Herodians. There may be two reasons. Firstly, Luke may think that it is not necessary to mention their identification. Secondly, Luke may think that it is unlikely or unnatural for these two different interest groups working together on the plot.

v.21 It is very interesting that the spies give a compliment at the beginning of the trap. Why they praise Jesus’ teaching instead of Jesus himself (Mark’s record)? What is the purpose of the compliment?

It should be aware that the dialogue between the spies and Jesus is a form of law-teaching. In the first testing in the temple, the Jesus’ qualification of being a law-teacher is criticized but failed. In this trap, Jesus’ qualification is assumed as he is entitled as a "teacher". Then, they "pretend" to appreciate Jesus’ teaching and say that his teaching is "straight" which refers to his accurate presentation of God’s way. Moreover, his teaching is praised as showing no partiality, which means "not to raise the face or accept with favor". The spies may want to "remind" Jesus that he is a "teacher of God’s Law", he should pronounce his teaching without the fear of challenging the Roman authority. The spies are leading Jesus to speak something against the Roman governor. Finally, his teaching is treasured as a preaching according to the "way of God" that is an extension of the use of walking for the concrete living out of one’s life. Wuest gives a good translation of the phrase that may serve as a summary of above discussion, his translation is: "you teach…prescribed and approved by God."

As the spies plan to catch him out of his speech; they pretend to appreciate Jesus’ teaching serving as disarming. Besides disarming, they may lead Jesus to speak something challenging the Roman governor.

v.22 The focus of the exegesis on this verse is the translation of 22b and the overtone of the question.

The verse 22b should be translated as "Is it ‘lawful’.." based on two reasons. Firstly, the dialogue is in the ‘law teaching’ form (that has been mentioned). Secondly, the question concerns on a legal issue in the historical context. Although some Jewish finds that it is unlawful to give the tax, some Jewish thinks that "withholding the tax from a foreign was an act of rebellion against Yahweh because one should endured the Yahweh’s judgement for his unfaithfulness". In other words, their law has no direct instruction on this debating issue. Therefore, it should be translated as "Is it ‘lawful’…" for they are seeking the guidance on this legal matter.

The trap of this question should be noted. The spies has limited the answer to either Yes or No. It has mentioned what the expectation of the mass is. If Jesus does not please the mass by stating the legal foundation of stopping the unpopular tax, the mass may leave him. On the other hand, if Jesus does so, he will be charged of treason because of forbidding payment of taxes to the emperor. Although this question is a trap, it is also the question of the mass. They are asking "Are God’s people exempt from paying such a tax to a foreign power? Jesus, are you loyal to Israel? Do you have sympathy on us? Are you the political Messiah, looking for the independence of Israel? Or should we knuckle under to Rome? We do not want to pay the tax any more! Jesus, please give us some legal foundation for stopping the unpopular tax!"

v.23 Jesus notes that the spies are not sincerely and he should aware the trap of the question.

v.24 Three questions may be raised on this verse. Firstly, why the phrase "Why do you try to put me to the test?" is missed in Lukan record? Secondly, why does Jesus ask them to show him a coin? Thirdly, is there any symbolism of the image and inscription on the coin?

Imaging that we were Jesus, we may fall passively into a great difficulties. However (kai), he takes the initiative to ask the mass to show a coin to HIM. (please note that the word "me" (him) is emphasized). He is not limited by the question proposed, but he asks other counter-question actively that the answer is not limited to yes/no. In this context, the additional phrase of "Why do you…" is not necessary because the redundancy may reduce the sense of Jesus’ initiation. On the other hand, this is one of the reasons why he asks them to show the coin. Moreover, the coin may be used as a teaching aids. As the mass participate in the answer actively, they will have a greater impression of the answer.

What Jesus requested is a coin (Denarisu) representing an average day’s wage, the mass carry it and use it daily. This is why Jesus can get it easily without pausing his teaching. Jesus may want to remind the mass that they are living as a citizen of Roman Empire and using her currency in their daily lives. It is very irony that the mass use the coinage for commercial advantage but not want to take up any responsibility of paying the tax when a cost is involved. This implication prepares Jesus’ pronouncement in v.25.

The symbolism of the image and inscription on the coins is an important issue that help one to understand the pronouncement fully. The importance is shown through the studies of the word ‘therefore’ in the first part of v.25. The word is refereeing to ‘following the logic’. It implies that the teaching in v.24 provides a logic foundation for the development of the pronouncement in v.25. Therefore, it is necessary to study the symbolism.

The image and inscription on the coins are varied. However, it can be understood that the image and inscription are the "property seal" of Caesar. It denotes that the coins are Caesar’s. Following this logic, men are in the image of God, men are God’s.

Moreover, the symbol is not only the property seal but also showing the political authority of Roman Empire in her colonies. It is very easy for a Hong Kong people to understand it. The head of England queen and the symbol of the royal crown on the currency and stamps are representing the political authority of England in Hong Kong. Similarly, the image and inscription on the coin are representing the Roman authority.

There is other question if it is unlawful to use the coinage because it bear the image that may be the symbol of an idiot. In my opinion, it may not be a serious problem. If so, Jesus should have mentioned it in his teaching.

v.25 This is the climax of the passage. Many questions are raised on this verse:

  1. What is the biblical basic of Jesus’ answer?
  2. What is the meaning of the word "render"? (to "give" actively? or to "give back" passively? the second translation has the meaning of withdrawal from participation in the Roman economy)
  3. What is the precise sense of the genitives "of Caesar" and "of God"? (owned by? owning to? or "to which he has a right"?)
  4. Does the phrase "And what is God’s to God" have the same stress of "Give what is Caesar’s to Caesar"? (if so, it may lead to the "two-kingdom view")

According to the foundation that is discussed in v.24, Jesus gives the pronouncement. His message may not be expected and desired by the mass as he says to pay the tax and honour the God as well. In other words, he breaks the "either/or(yes/no)" pattern of the answer imposed by the spies, but change it to the "both (and)" pattern. Jesus wants to deliver a message that the mass are under the "political authority" of the state. They are reminded when they learn that they are using the coins which has the symbolism of political authority in their daily lives. Therefore, the authority are entitled to collect the tax and the mass need to give the tax. The mass may be disappointed on Jesus’ answer. They may argue why they need to obey the immoral authority. "The tax rate is high! The Roman soldiers are unkind to us!". Please note the second half of the pronouncement. One should devote what God’s (one’s life whose bear the image of God) to God (in spite of the living in the immoral authority). Therefore, one should abandon his self-interest (of not paying tax, reforming the Israel) but obey the command and plan of God (the ordination of political authority). His message implies that serving the state and honouring the God do not necessary have any conflict. Moreover, it implies that the authority of the state is ordinated by God, one should obey it but the ultimate authority is God. (cf. Rm. 13:1~7, Pe. 2:13~17)

It should be noted that some early published commentaries state the argument that "The coin belongs to Caesar, but you to God… The coin, which bears the image of Caesar, we owe to Caesar. We, however, as men who bear the image of God, owe ourselves to God". The commentators do not handle if it is necessary to pay the tax. They just state the need of returning Caesar’s property (coins), but not discussing the symbolism of political authority of the image and inscription on the coins. In my opinion, such interpretation has the problem of ignoring the actual historical and political context. They skip the discussion of the political view of Jesus. When such interpretation is compared with the one discussed in this paper, the later may be better. It is because it handles the discussion of the political view of Jesus but not skip it. In fact, the interpretation adopted in this paper agrees with the interpretation of recent published commentaries.

It is difficult to identify the specific Biblical source used by Jesus. Some scholars may try to predict the source, for example, Ecclesiates 8:2 ("keep the king’s command" ). In my opinion, Jesus does not intend to use any particular Biblical source. If so, he will quote the exact Biblical reference, like his reply in the temptation in the desert. Thus, it is expected that he develops the pronouncement based on some general teaching on the issue of the state in Old Testament, for example, the teaching in Ecclesiates mentioned and the teaching of Jeremiah (Jer. 29:7).

The word "render" should be understood in an active sense. The passage is in an active scene; thus, the word should be understood in an active scene as well. Moreover, it gives one’s encouragement not to behave as a weak. If one withdraw from the economical system passively under the political pressure, they are the weak. However, they can pay the tax actively to show that they are not the weak in spite of the oppression by the authority.

Regarding the precise meanings of the genitives "of Caesar" and "of God", it is difficult to be determined. All suggested meanings seem to fit into the context. There will be no further discussion here.

Two-kingdom views will be developed if both phrases are considered as the same stress. It will be a big problem if God and state are considered on the same plane because it implies that state is more or less the same important as God. Marshall suggests that it was more appropriate to say that "Jesus is grounding obedience to the earthly ruler in obedience to God – the law of God required that men obey his delegated authority" in the light of Jewish and biblical teaching. Marshall further suggests that Jesus stated the pronouncement as it was required in his context. I agree with his interpretation of Jesus’ pronouncement but not the explanation of the context. As Jesus "teaches the way of God in truth but not partial to any", he should teach us the truth not based on the contextual requirement. On the other hand, this pronouncement may serve as the foundation of the theology of Paul and Peter on the political issues (cf. Rm. 13:1~7, Pe. 2:13~17). Their interpretations do not have conflict with Marshall’s one. Thus, it should be understood that the "kingdom" of state is sub-ordinated to the kingdom of God. The ultimately authority is the law of God.

v.26 The spies fail in their mission. They are just marveled and admired at Jesus’ answer. And they become silent (Lukan idiom).

Summary: Spies are send by the religious leader in order to catch Jesus out of his speech. They ask if it is "lawful" to give the (unpopular) poll tax to Caesar. It is a question which can only be answered either in "Yes" or "No". It seems that Jesus is in a "passive" position. However (kai), Jesus take the initiative to request a coin and asks a counter-question actively. Then, he states his pronouncement that one should pay the tax actively. Moreover, one can handle the duty of state "and" devote himself to God as well. In other words, there is no conflict between one’s duty to the state and God. The spies admire his answer and become silent.

Theological Implication

What is the worldview of Jesus on the political issue?

If one wants a comprehensive Jesus’ view on the political issue, e.g. how to manage a government, how to deal with the polities of different parties, he will be surely disappointed. The pronouncement may be the most and only political statement of Jesus. It shows that he has little or even no interest on the political issue. He is more interested in how a people can honour the God and how to build a transcendental nation. Nevertheless, a basic principle about the Church and state can be view in his pronouncement:

"Governments, even a pagan government like Rome, have the right to exist and to expect its citizens to participate in contributing to its functions. Supporting such a government, including taxes, does not violate one’s commitment to God."

Moreover, it has been discussed the Jesus’ worldview on the priority of the God and the state. The authority of state is sub-ordinated to the authority of God but not the two-kingdom views. One should obey the authority of state as it is ordinated by God. However, it leaves us other question……

How can one live under the immoral authority?

The complex feeling of the audience in Jesus’ pronouncement should be understood empathetically. They do not want to pay the heavy tax to the immoral foreign authority. They are eager to have the legal support from Jesus of stopping the payment. However, Jesus teaches them to pay the tax as the authority is entitled to accept the tax.

Following the teaching of Jesus, what should a follower do when a evil authority such as the authority of Hitler is faced?

Three models of possible actions are suggested: (1) nonresistance (2)nonviolent resistant and (3)violent resistant. It should be aware that the detail discussion of this problem is beyond the scope of the selected passage. However, we learn that Jesus adopts the model of nonviolent resistant when other biblical passages are studied.

The model of nonviolent resistant is built based on the Jesus’ worldview on the political issue. As God ordains the authority, it is not appropriate to overthrow it in a violent means. It is necessary to follow the principle of ‘love’ (nonviolent). However, Christians should not keep their silent to the social problems. It is because the ultimate authority of Christian is God; therefore, they should point out the problems of the authority if their policy is violated from the principle of God (resistant). In other words, they need to follow the principle of ‘righteousness’ as well. As they are devoting themselves to God and follow the two principles in a balance way, their revolutionary changes in social attitude can serve as a vehicle to change the immoral social structure.


What it meant for the Christian in the first Century?

Christian in the first Century are suffering from the oppression of the authority. Moreover, they are forced to make decision if they consider Caesar as the kingship comparable with Jesus (Acts 17:6~7). It is admitted that Jesus’ pronouncement cannot handle the complex and acute issue in later development. However, it forms the foundation of the theology of Paul and Peter on the political issues that give appropriate guideline to their living (cf. Rm. 13:1~7, Pe. 2:13~17). The Christian just follow the "simple" principle discussed above; but the revolting idea of "nonviolent resistant" has a shocking influence on the world since 1st century.

What it means for us?

Base on the discussed theological implication, here is a list of questions for a open reflection:

  1. How should we face the immoral policy of government that seems to be violated from God’s politics? for example, sex and age discrimination, abortion, etc.
  2. Supposing that we are not allowed to have Church actives as the political authority forbids it, what should we do? Does the response of Christian in the 1st century give us some insights?
  3. Should I pay the tax on-time? Should I use any means to reduce the amount of the tax "legally"?
  4. Whom do my life belong to? To Caesar? To God?
  5. Tax is rendered to Caesar (government). What is rendered to God?

4) How much of my life is rendered to God? In what rate do I given to God? 5%, 10% or the flat rate 15%?


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