For God or For Caesar
Civil Servant: But Gov. Pilate, the tax is too much!... Six hundred talents of gold are six million denarii... Six million working days!
Pilate: Whatís said is said: the province of Judea will pay Rome six hundred talents of gold, no more no less.
Civil Servant: Very well, governor. I shall inform the collectors and the army right away. But, frankly, Iím afraid there will be protests and riots in the streets. You know how stubborn these Jews are.
Pilate: Maybe they deserve a nice, good beating to soften them up. If they refuse to pay, then they will know who Pontius Pilate is.
Civil Servant: What will Caiphas, the high priest, say?
Pilate: Bah, this fat man couldnít care less. Heís like a prostitute, you know: he keeps no secrets. By the way, tell him I want to see him urgently, ďthat the governor has the honor to invite him to his palace to explain to him the new tax measures.Ē Ha!
Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor signed an order for new taxes, thereby raising the contribution to be paid by the province of Judea to the enormous amount of six million denarii. Customs duties were also increased and all duly registered Israelites were forced to pay personal taxes... The peopleís protests could no longer wait....
A Man: But what has gotten into his mind? Is he really testing our patience?
Another Man: Leeches, thatís what all the Romans are! But we wonít pay them even a single denarius!
Another Woman: If you donít, then you wonít be able to get in and out of the city, rascal! Donít you know that everything is under their control? Israel has become a huge mousetrap!
A Man: And we are the mice, arenít we? May his hand be paralyzed if he pays a tribute to the Roman Caesar!
The zealots refused to pay. Several sympathizers and the other rebels protested daily at the gates of the city of David, loudly criticizing Rome and turning the collectorsí tables upside down.
That afternoon, Joseph Caiphas, the high priest of the Temple of Jerusalem and the highest religious authority of our country, hurriedly entered the palace of the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate...
Pilate: Most Illustrious Caiphas, in the name of Rome, receive my respects...
Caiphas: And mine too, governor. I received your invitation a while ago, so here I am. I have set aside my other commitments....
Pilate: I guess you already know why I called for you, your excellency. From the windows of your palace in Mount Zion to my palace you can hear the shouts of protests of this small group of fanatic protesters who have no respect for law nor authority. Have you thought of any solution that would cool them off?
Caiphas: Pardon my temerity, Governor Pilate, but.... donít you think the amount of six hundred talents of gold is rather excessive for a poor province like ours?
Pilate: You surprised me with your question, high priest. Precisely you are aware, as well as I am, of the enormous expenses of the empire, the money necessary to support an army like ours, an indispensable requisite to ensure peace and order for the Romans.... You know how expensive is the construction and maintenance of the aqueduct.... Itís even more expensive to maintain you and your family in the Sanhedrin!
Caiphas: I understand, Governor, and believe me, I am aware of the sacrifices that you have been making for our country, but, in spite of this...
Pilate: Speak no more. Whatís said, is said. Six hundred talents of gold! If you, their chief, fail to collect this amount from these stubborn mules, then youíll have to pay from your own pockets! Otherwise, I shall go to the Treasury of the Temple myself, spit on the altar, and get from there, whatever is necessary. Is that understood, your excellency?
Caiphas: Certainly, Governor.... I apologize for not having made myself clear... I never meant to offend you nor to anger you....
Pilate: Well, you succeeded without meaning to...
Caiphas: I shall order the magistrates of the Sanhedrin right away, so that...
Pilate: I give the orders! You must pacify the people. Being the high priest, you are Godís symbol on earth for this mob. The moment they see your neck, itís like seeing God himself. Well, tell these mules that Caesar is demanding payment of their taxes. And let God do the same, because He and the Caesar are friends; very good friends; in fact... just like you and me, is that right, your excellency?
Caiphas: Why, of course, governor, of course...
Pilate: Oh, another thing, donít fail to pass by the Antonia Tower tomorrow or the day after tomorrow for your priestly garments. The feast of the Passover is already near...
Caiphas: And.... what happens after the feast?
Pilate: Take it easy, your excellency. If you and your family could help me with this inevitable task of appeasing the people, then youíll have a nice, good sleep. I shall renew your appointment as high priest for the next year. Rome knows how to be grateful to her supporters....
Caiphas: Thank you, Governor, you know fully well that you can count on me...
Pilate: I shall inform my colleague, Sejanus, who is a very good friend of Emperor Tiberius. He shall be informed of your exemplary conduct for this year...
Caiphas: Thank you so much, Governor. Please give my respects to your wife, Claudia Procula.
Pilate: And send my regards to your father-in-law, Annas...
The high priest left the governorís palace hesitatingly. Some members of the Sanhedrin were waiting for him outside, together with their guards, who would carry him in a sedan chair to his luxurious residence in the upper barrio of the city.
Caiphas: We must observe prudence, my friends. The interview was very cordial and filled with respect from both sides. Governor Pilate is in the best position to help usÖ if we collaborate with him.
A Scribe: What does he want from us, your excellency?
Caiphas: That we defend the new tax measures. That we help explain them to the people. The commandment says: ďHonor your father and your mother.Ē God is our father in heaven. Rome is our mother on earth. Both ask us to obey the laws. This is what we must tell the people.
In only a few hours, the whole city knew that the high priest, Caiphas was supporting the new tax measures issued by Governor Pontius Pilate. The whole of Jerusalem was talking about it in the streets...
A Man: If Rome were our mother, then Iíd rather be an orphan!
Another Man: Damn it! This fat man, Caiphas, does nothing but lick Pilateís ass!
A Woman: Hey, arenít they the Galileans whoíre always with the prophet?... and if Iím not mistaken, the Nazarene is with them!
A Man: Hey, please wait, donít go away...!
We wanted to pass unnoticed amid the multitude that was leaving the Temple at that hour, but it was impossible. They were already gathered around us. They wanted to listen to Jesus.... But, at that moment, a group of priests, teachers of the law, and Herodís men were making way, the latter were in search of us....
A Scribe: You canít hide yourself from us, Jesus of Nazareth.... Everyone here knows you well.... How lucky of you to have come to the capital, especially on these days. Letís see, what have you got to say?
Jesus: What shall I say?
Scribe: About the happenings in Jerusalem.
Jesus: I donít get it my friend. We have just arrived from the north, and... we donít now whatís going on here.
Pharisee: Donít be a fool, Nazarene, because you are not.
Scribe: Neither do you mince your words. At least, they say, that you donít give a hoot to anything but the truth, the truth which is as clear as crystal. So, speak up clear: Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Caesar of Rome? What do you say?
All of us understood the trap that the followers of Caiphas had intended for Jesus. Jesus, however, remained unperturbed...
Pharisee: Whatís the matter? Have you lost your tongue?Ö Or are you too scared to reply? Címon, speak up, is it alright to pay tribute to Caesar?
Jesus: WellÖ it depends....
Pharisee: Make yourself clear: Yes or no?
Jesus: I said it depends.
Scribe: It depends on what?
Jesus: On how much you have in your pocket. For instance, I canít pay it because I havenít got a single centavo!
The people applauded Jesus while the priests looked at him des¨pisingly.
Pharisee: The law does not depend on anything, Galilean. It is our obligation to obey the law. Or, do you think otherwise?
Jesus: If Iíve got nothing to pay taxes, then how can I comply with the law, tell me?
Scribe: Youíve got to pay it just the same. Thatís an order from Rome.
Jesus: Well, if you donít give me some denarii, then I canít pay you, even if Raphael the Archangel orders so.
Pharisee: You canít easily get away with it, Nazarene. Here, take this denarius. Itís all yours...
One of the priests took a silver coin from his tunic and gave it to Jesus. It glittered in his calloused hand....
Pharisee: And now, what?
Jesus: What do you mean?
Pharisee: Youíve got the money that you needed. What will you do with it?
Jesus: WellÖ I was planning to buy a denarius worth of bread with this piece of alms you have given me.
Scribe: That was intended for your tax. We wanted to see you paying your taxes at the collection table.
Jesus: Better, youíll see me at the bakeshop. Iím sure, Caesar has had his lunch already, but I havenít had my breakfast yet.
Pharisee: Youíre trying to be funny, Jesus of Nazareth. But the Caesar of Rome is too serious for that. It was Emperor Tiberius who has ordered payment of new taxes.
Jesus: What the hell have I got to do with that emperor?
Scribe: Our country is under the dominion of Rome, and all Israelites must submit to the authority of the Caesar of Rome.
Jesus: Maybe you, but not I. I donít bow before this Tiberius nor before any man.
Pharisee: He is the Caesar, who is the supreme authority here on earth.
Jesus: Tiberius is a man, just like you and me. The only authority comes from heaven. The only ruler, the only emperor is God and no one else. No one in this world has a right to call himself king nor father Ė who is in heaven; and the rest of us are brothers and sisters who are equal to one another.
Scribe: How dare you speak that way. Governments are authorized by God and the rulers act as the God for the people.
Jesus: You donít sayÖ?! But look what kind of God you are for the people. You do nothing but abuse them and burden them with more and more taxes, bleeding us dry of the little money we have! And now, you still have the nerve to call yourselves benefactors of the country!
Scribe: Watch your tongue, Nazarene. He who rebels against Caesar is against God.
Jesus: On the contrary, compatriot: whoever who is for Caesar is against God. You cannot serve two masters: either you are for God or for Caesar!
Pharisee: Thatís almost a blasphemy! Caiphas, our high priest, has just declared our obedience to Caesar!
Jesus: And in whose name did he declare that?
Pharisee: In the name of God! Caiphas is Godís representative here on earth.
Jesus: Or better, in the name of the devil and his interests.
Scribe: How dare you refer to our high priest in that manner?
Jesus: Tell him, on my behalf, that he cannot serve two masters nor use religion to silence the people.
Scribe: Youíve filled the cup to the brim, charlatan. The denarius we gave you, are you giving it as tax or not?
Jesus: To each his own. Give to God what is Godís and to the devil, what is the devilís. Take a look at this coin... Whose face is in it?... Look at it well... It belongs to him, a man like you and me, who wanted to go to heaven and rob the Lord of his throne. The devil did the same too, and fell like lightning. Those whose names and faces appear in these coins shall suffer the same fate, too, because they too have robbed the people.... Ah, there goes the money: Give it back!
Jesus threw the coin at the feet of the priests and the teachers of the law, gave a half turn and left.
A Woman: Thatís the guy! Long live the Nazarene!
Pharisee: Get that man, and donít let him escape!
The men of Caiphas wanted to arrest Jesus, although it did not push through. We spent the night in Markís house, and very early the next day, when the streets of Jerusalem were still half deserted, we secretly left for Perea, at the other side of the Jordan where John had been baptizing before.
Since the time of King Solomon (about a thousand years before Christ), taxes had been collected from the citizens of the kingdom of Israel, although not in a fully organized manner. The Persians and the Greeks, who occupied the country (500 and 150 years before our Lordís birth), had also established the system of tax collection. With the Roman domination of Palestine, which became more definite starting from year 6 of the Christian era, the system was strictly enforced on the Israelites. In fact, the Roman Government retained all excess production of the country in the wide network of customs collectors who were created to be in charge of the collection of the different taxes, thus controlling the flow of commerce throughout the province.
Pilate, the governor of the Roman province of Judea, was the supreme representative of Emperor Tiberius in Palestine. Actually, his main function was precisely to attend to the finances of the empire; therefore, the supervision of tax collection was an essential aspect of his job. On the other hand he had to keep the people at bay, who rebelled every now and then due to the economic exploitation which the system, through various measures, imposed. Judea should pay.
Romeís 600 talents (6 million denarii) is in the form of annual taxes. (A laborer was paid a daily wage of one denarius.) The taxes collected by Rome in Palestine were of three types: (1) Territorial taxes (paid partly in cash and partly in the produce of the land); (2) Personal taxes (of several types: according to wealth or income; another was of a general type which was paid by everyone, except by children and old citizens called the ďtributum capitisĒ Ė per head. The evangelical account makes allusion to this); (3) Business taxes (on import and export items).
The high priests Ė the supreme religious authorities of Israel Ė ďmade a pactĒ with the Romans to ensure their power and, above all, their privileged economic situation. During Jesusí time the high priests were Annas (6-15 years after Christ) and some of his sons; and from year 18 to 37, his son-in-law, Joseph Caiphas, who appears in the episode. Like Annas, Caiphas belonged to the religious aristocracy and to one of the wealthiest families of Jerusalem. Caiphas tried to get along with Pilate, who dominated him with all types of political and economic pressures, to the extent of threatening him. For instance, one measure resorted to by the Roman governor was to keep the sacred garments worn by the high priest during religious feasts in the Antonia Tower Ė a Roman quarters near the Temple. The governor would hand them over only for the feasts, and later, the garments would be returned to him for safekeeping. (This tactic was also employed by Herod the Great and by Archelaus.) This symbolized the lack of independence of the religious authority with respect to the political power of the empire.
In his conversation with the high priest, Caiphas, Pilate mentioned the construction of the aqueduct of Jerusalem. Obviously, in Jesusí time, Pontius Pilate was the implementor of the great engineering work, part of which is still preserved. Pilate, who hated the Jews and who had offended their religious feeling on several occasions, took money from the so-called ďTempleís treasuryĒ for said construction. Such money was considered sacred by the religious Israelites. This act provoked impassioned revolts from the people against the Roman powers. The Revolts were suppressed by the soldiers with cudgel blows, which were not mentioned by the historians of the period.
The gospel text makes reference to two Roman emperors. Augustus Caesar ruled from the year 30 before Christ to year 14 after his birth. With him started the imperial dynasty of the Claudius family. The other one is Caesar Tiberius, son of the second wife of Augustus, who ruled from the year 14 to 37. It was under his rule that Jesus was killed. After him, other Caesars continued to rule in Rome: Caligula, Claudius, Nero... Tiberius made Augustus, his foster father, a ďgod.Ē Gradually, the lust for power of all emperors demanded that all their subjects should worship them. In Jesusí time, this tendency to deify the emperor became more and more intense, and eventually became the practice until the fall of the Roman Empire. Caligula was worshipped alive. The Caesars had made images of themselves to be venerated by making their subjects prostrate before them, etc. All this was nothing but the fruit of ambition, and above all, a wise tactic to strengthen their power and ensure submission on the part of the subjects. This idea, however, of trying to impose Roman power among the subjected people of Israel did not prosper because the Jews, faithful to the faith, strongly resisted blasphemy. But this was not so among their leaders, who, in spite of the fact that theoretically, they could not accept that the Caesar was god, in practice, ignored the whole thing and remained silent, in complicity with the established authority.
The local government (the Sanhedrin Ė Council or Tribunal of Israel Ė whose supreme authority was the high priest), was actually wanting in initiative on matters of taxes, as well as the question of relationships with other countries and defense. Its only function was to maintain religious worship and ensure strict observance of the law. In cases like that mentioned in the episode, it was clearly manifested up to what extent Israel yielded to the arbitrary whims of a foreign power.
ďGive to Caesar what is due him, and to God what is GodísĒ is, perhaps, one of the most over-used phrases in the gospel. This has been employed continuously at all times, to define turfs and to show that the priests and the Christians should not involve themselves in political matters nor interfere in matters of the State, but rather, in concerns about God: praying, going to church.... Do not mix the different turfs or concerns, they claim, ďto each his own.Ē Yet, the original meaning of these words of Jesus was not this. Jesus was removing from Caesar the religious basis on which the emperor wanted to rest his authority. Thus he separated God from Caesar to demythify the image of the emperor, the supreme authority of the period, in order to say that Caesar was not God.
One of the more frequent reasons for popular revolts in Israel were the taxes. It was precisely the refusal to pay taxes which sparked the Jewish revolt of the year 70 after Jesus, which destroyed the very foundations of Jerusalem and dismantled the Jewish society. Along that line, the question directed to Jesus about the payment of taxes was crucial. The zealots refused to pay their taxes as a form of active resistance to the present empire. The collaborating classes (sadducees, priests), recommended its payment. The pharisees were in doubt. Theoretically, they were against it, since they were very nationalistic, but in practice, they ended up complying with the order. In the episode, Jesus does not legitimize the Roman occupation by payment of taxes, neither does he show that non-payment is a form of open rebellion against the ruling power. His reply can be taken in another plane: that of total freedom before the secular authority.
History is replete with proofs showing that the authority of the kings (and later, that of a number of rulers) ďcomes from God.Ē For many centuries, it had been said that God ďelectsĒ the king. The following line has also been stated time and again: ďA certain somebody, president, by the grace of God.Ē But this is not so. Authority is chosen by people ¨Ė if it is a democracy. If it is authoritarian, governance/authority is imposed.
(Mt 22:15-22; Mk 12:13-17; Lk 20:20-26)