What does it mean to “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s”? How might that shape our attitude as Christians toward paying taxes or supporting the government?
Such a subtle answer Jesus gives! The question (Matt. 22:20-22; Mark 12:16-18; Luke 20:24-26) is whether it is lawful to give taxes to Caesar. Jesus says to “give back” those things that are due to Caesar. So you don’t give taxes to Caesar; you give back to Caesar what is owed.
By adding “and to God what is God’s,” Jesus indicates that not everything is due to Caesar. Coins and tax payments are appropriately Caesar’s for what Caesar provides. But some things, namely worship and adoration, are appropriate only for God.
I’m reminded of a practice in some ballparks where a fan who catches an opposing team’s home run ball will throw it back onto the field. When the ball reaches the stands, a chant of "Throw it back!" starts, and there are loud cheers when the ball flies back. Jesus is saying that if you don’t appreciate what Caesar does for you, why would you hold on to money that has Caesar’s image and a claim of divinity inscribed on it? Give it back! If you do appreciate what Caesar does for you—roads, sewers, police protection, economic trade around the Mediterranean—why begrudge Caesar what is Caesar’s due? Just remember that God is greater than Caesar, and don’t give to Caesar what is properly God’s.
In a sermon on the first Sunday after April 15, I once made an offhand comment about the distress caused by paying taxes the previous week. Afterward, a woman chided me for that remark. She said, “I don’t resent paying my taxes, and I don’t think Christians should. The government does wonderful things that make society possible, and if I resent paying taxes I’m only trying to get something for nothing.”
She was right. Sometimes we assume all too readily that taxes are an imposition and never warranted. Christians have a teaching from Jesus regarding the appropriateness of paying taxes toward the legitimate ends of civil government.