Bible Review 19:2, April 2003

What Jesus Really Meant by “Render Unto Caesar”

(It’s not about taxes)

By David T. Ball

It’s Spring. Tax time. Time to, as Jesus commanded, “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” That phrase has become a kind of cliché—heard with annoying frequency every year as April 15 draws near.

The full line of the quote is, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). It might seem like Jesus is telling us that we should cheerfully fulfill our annual financial obligation to the IRS (or at least the government) despite how onerous it sometimes feels. More generally, the passage is usually taken to mean that civil obligations exert claims on us apart from our religious responsibilities. Keep politics and religion separate. That, at least, is how the passage is often interpreted. Some have gone so far as to cite this passage as discouraging any kind of civil disobedience, even when governments are unjust.1

But this isn’t necessarily what Jesus meant with this rather cryptic phrase, as we will find by putting his words back in context.

Join the BAS Library!

Already a library member? Log in here.

Institution user? Log in with your IP address.