Often, ignorance or poor understanding of the law causes conflict because the implementation of a law by an authority could be misjudged as victimisation, and another party’s interpretation of a law could be misconstrued as discrimination.
Last week’s post examined Jesus’ reaction to the tension between Martha and Mary. Today and next week’s posts will discuss themes on the payment of taxes. Tax payment is a civic duty binding on all citizens and inhabitants of conquered territories. As Palestine at the time of Jesus was under Roman occupation, the Jews were required to pay tax to Augustus Caesar, the then-Roman emperor.
There are two incidents regarding Jesus and the payment of taxes. The first is about paying taxes to the civil authorities, while the other is paying the temple tax. Today’s post focuses on paying taxes to Caesar.
This encounter appears in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, with some differences in the timing, the identity of these leaders and the response of Jesus (Luke 20:19-26; cf. Matthew 22:15-22,Mark 12:13-17). When the Jewish leaders found out they could not arrest Jesus for fear of the people, they sent agents who posed as upright men to question Jesus in order to catch him on something he might say. They asked if it was right to pay taxes to Ceasar or not. The conflict was between Jesus and the Jewish leaders, who wanted to entangle Jesus because of his teachings. The gospels of Matthew and Mark say they are the Pharisees and Herodians (Matt 22:15-16; Mark 12:13). Luke identifies them as the Scribes and Pharisees (Luke 20:19-20).
The response of Jesus
Regarding the question of the Jewish leaders, the scripture reads:
“Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the money for the tax.” And they brought him a coin. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt 22:16-21).
A direct answer from Jesus would have had grave consequences for his ministry and the Jews. A positive response would have offended the nationalists, who, in retaliation, would have greatly disrupted Jesus’ mission. They might have wanted to interrupt his sermons or incite the crowds against him. We recall how the Jews blackmailed Pilate to crucify Jesus instead of Barabbas, an insurrectionist already imprisoned by the Romans. Their argument was simple – “If you set him (Jesus) free, you are no friend of Caesar’s; anyone who makes himself king is defying Caesar” (John 19:12; cf. Luke 23:18-25).
On the other hand, a negative response would have pitted Jesus against the Romans with devastating consequences for the Jews. This is because he would have further encouraged the insurrectionists and the Zealots, something the Romans would have sought to crush with full military power, leading to the loss of innocent lives and the destruction of property. Jesus remembers how Pilate massacred Jews who opposed paying tribute in the temple (Luke 13:1-2). The invasion and destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 by the Romans is another indication of what would have happened. An attack by the Romans would have also disrupted the mission of Jesus and altered the divine plan for his passion, death and resurrection.
Lessons from Jesus
(a) Identify the position of the parties:
As conflict is a clash of interests, identifying the interests of conflicting parties is a necessary step in managing conflicts. Jesus recognised that the Romans wanted to maintain their conquered territory and continue receiving taxes from the Jews. The Jews, on the other hand, wanted their freedom. Each position is valid, and Jesus respected both in his response.
(b)Avoid actions and words that can lead to violence: Words, if misapplied, can be a matchstick that creates fire. Although the Jewish leaders sought to trap Jesus with the question, Jesus also knew that his response could lead to violence. As a man of peace, he gave a response that simultaneously discouraged insurrection and avoided a potential violent backlash from the Romans.
(c)Give each person their due: Conflicts often emerge when people feel they are denied their rights. Jesus recognised the right of the Romans and the Jews to have divergent views on the payment of taxes. In the context of the relationship between the Jews and the Romans, the Romans had a right to receive taxes from the Jews, while the Jews had an obligation to pay them. Jesus’ response directed the Jews to give the Romans their due. The continuous payment of taxes avoided escalating tensions and contributed to the relative peace between the two nations.
(d)Keep to the rules guiding your profession or vocation: Jesus was never unequivocal that he had a spiritual mission. By sticking to the rules guiding his mission and by not taking sides with the Jews or the Romans, Jesus was able to minister to both Jews and Romans. His person was a unifying factor between the Jews and Romans. Firstly, he had friends from both sides. Among his apostles were Simon the Zealot and Matthew the tax collector (Matt 10:3; Acts 1:13). He healed the servant of a centurion, and at his death, another centurion said – “Certainly, this man was innocent” (Luke 7:1-10; Luke 23:47). Secondly, the trial of Jesus successfully reconciled Herod and Pilate who had been in enmity (cf Luke 23:11-12).
(e)Know and keep the law:
A legal principle says – “ignorance of the law is not an excuse”.
Jesus knew it was a civic duty to pay taxes, and he did pay them (Matt 17:24-27). In doing this, he blocked off possible conflicts in paying taxes.
(f)Be cautious of flattery:
Resentment disrupts relationships, breaks down negotiations, and can lead to violence. This resentment is most intense when mistakes or damages are caused by succumbing to flattery. The agents sent to Jesus began by eulogising Jesus to convince him of their honesty and catch him off-guard. However, Jesus knew they were cunning and had ulterior purposes. As we ordinarily love to be commended, it is always recommended to be cautious of eulogies, particularly from those whose interests conflict with ours.
May God continue to help us🙏🏾
I am a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Okigwe, Nigeria, and an advocate of the indispensable role of religion in contemporary society. My academic background includes degrees in philosophy, theology, education, peace and conflict resolution, religion, and canon law. These studies give me a broad perspective that helps in an existential analysis of the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church.