God and Government 7: What is Owed?

The Greek word for “render” in the “render statement” of Jesus (or “give”, as modern versions of the Bible have it) is ἀπόδοτε (apodote), which often connotes giving up, giving back, repaying, returning, or even fulfilling—as of a debt owed.

What is it that originates from Caesar and from God, that then has to be returned to them? What about the two-drachma tax, also known as the temple tax, in the following passage:

When they came to Capernaum, those who collected the two-drachma tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the two-drachma tax?” He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth collect customs or poll-tax, from their sons or from strangers?” When Peter said, “From strangers,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are exempt. However, so that we do not offend them, go to the sea and throw in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for you and Me.” (Matthew 17:24-27)

The tax was capitated—every Jew of good standing had to pay it, regardless of income. It was initiated by Moses in the wilderness to raise revenue for the temple:

Everyone who is numbered, from twenty years old and over, shall give the contribution to the Lord…. This is what everyone who is numbered shall give: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (the shekel is twenty gerahs), half a shekel as a contribution to the Lord…. a beka a head (that is, half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary), for each one who passed over to those who were numbered, from twenty years old and upward, for 603,550 men. (Exodus 30:14…13; 38:26)

It is different from the tax mentioned in Matthew 22. It was “God’s tax” or a religious tax. It was paid in Greek coinage—the drachma. Two drachma equaled about half a shekel. The tax in Matthew 22 was Caesar’s, paid in Roman denarii, and was the equivalent of an average daily wage. Jesus recommended that both taxes be paid, but in the case of the temple tax He said it should be paid so as not to cause offense.

In the story of Daniel and the three Hebrew worthies, it appears that everything—body, mind, soul, and worship—was originated by and therefore belongs to God and is to be rendered—returned—to Him. The kingdom principles of love, forgiveness, grace, and even life itself came from God; and that kingdom, said Jesus to Pilate:

… is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.” (John 18:36)

Peter and the apostles made no bones about whom they must obey:

“We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.” (Acts 5:29-32)

In His “render” statement, Jesus seemed to be telling us not to conflate the worldly with the heavenly. It was a reminder that God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55). The kingdom principles of turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, going to the back of the line, and so on, are not earthly principles. On the other hand, Jesus was not calling for revolution. “Wherever possible—wherever you can do so without compromising kingdom principles,” He seemed to be saying, “then go along with the government of church and state so as not to give offense and to keep the peace.” He seems to have been referring to the many earthly laws that God views with indifference. What are those laws? What things are Caesar’s?

It is often said that Jesus calls believers to be “in” the world but not “of” it, based on this statement to the apostles:

If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. (John 15:19)


I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. (John 17:14-16)

Peter summed up how we are to behave in the world:

To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing. (1 Peter 3:8-9)

Paul expanded upon the theme:

Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:9-21)

What is the role of the believer in government—especially in bad government? How pragmatic is the advice of Jesus and the apostles to all of us in this world?

Donald: Are tithes another word for temple tax? We think of tithes as paid to God, not the church. Some churches pay for their pastors, but our church sees pastors as paid by God, through tithes, to carry out His work.

David: The head on the coins and notes by which tithes are paid is not God’s; it is Caesar’s.

Don: To me, the sense of the render passage seems to be that what is owed to God is different in its very essence to what is owed to government. It seems not to be money. In Daniel, what is owed to God is body, mind, soul, and worship.

Anonymous: We owe faith to God.

KB: Tithes and offerings are part of a package needed for the smooth running of the church, but only a part. There are more important things that God expects of us, but money is a part of the package.

Robin: I don’t see how our ministers could be paid, otherwise. Nobody works for free.

David: Jesus did. 🙂

Jay: Can money be God’s? Tithing introduces a human element into the relationship between ourselves and God. There were no tithes in the garden of Eden. But as a result of the Fall, money is inevitably involved in the running of God’s church as a way to build community and do other things that are important to God. In my opinion, money can help us give back to God the things that are God’s. Money can make it easier to deliver love, mercy, and grace, for instance. Tithing was originally about helping the widow, the poor—people in need—than about maintaining the organization of the church. That organization is important, but it is not the most important thing.

It’s important to differentiate tithes and offerings. The latter are more like the temple tax, intended to fund specific projects at the local level. Tithes are for spreading grace, love, forgiveness, peace, humility, faith, and so on.

Dr. Singh: Tithing is set up like a government tax—it is deducted out of one’s pay.

Donald: Still, we look upon tithes (unlike offerings) as God’s money, not church money.

Jay: If it is God’s money, then it must be used to fulfill God’s purposes. Jesus had issues with His contemporary Jewish religious institution but He did not take issue with paying the temple tax to it. He had bigger fish to fry.

Michael: It’s easier to give money than to give direct service to the poor. Jesus had no problem with civil disobedience, as He demonstrated in wrecking the moneychangers’ tables in the temple. Yet here He is calling for the avoidance of such behavior.

Donald: God wants more than money. He wants love. We want an algorithm that makes it easy for us to love. We want to turn our loving relationships into contractual relationships. Our ten-percent tithe is a human construct.

David: A coin is a construct. To coin, to construct, and to create are practically synonymous. Who coined us? If, as the Bible says, we were made in God’s image, then God’s face is stamped on us—we are His coinage, His creation. Logically, then, we owe ourselves to God.

Jay: We live within the broader construct of the world. It can be used to apply, to follow, spiritual principles. Money being a part of the worldly construct, and of the construct of church organization, it can be used in furtherance of spiritual principles. The problem is that instead of using money as a tool to apply and teach spiritual principles, we substitute it for the principles themselves. I think Jesus was showing us the difference. He was saying that we can repay both God and Caesar. It’s not either/or.

David: The Good Samaritan is the perfect example. He gave money to Caesar (the landlord of the inn, in this case) but he was also giving to God by means of the money. The money itself was of utter indifference to God; what mattered was the mercy and compassion shown to the victim on the road. The Good Samaritan gave to God the imprint of God—the Goodness—that was upon him.

Donald: We asked a couple of weeks ago whether religion is independent of God. I think it’s relevant to this discussion.

Robin: Between Cain and Abel, whose offering was accepted? The offering of sacrifice based on what Abel did for a living was accepted. Cain’s was not. We don’t sacrifice today. If one is not a farmer, how is one to sacrifice? King David said to bring ten percent of one’s harvest into the storehouse.

KB: My father is a teacher. He has always kept cows, and would give to the church every tenth calf that was born. Whatever we receive from God, we have to return at least some of it—ten percent, in fact.

Chris: Discussion of money in connection with church tends to get impersonal, but in reality the issue is very personal. It involves our individual relationship with Man and (through Man) with God. If we take that personal element away, it becomes sterile, transactional. There is no love, grace, compassion, etc., in it.

David: The Rich Young Ruler followed the algorithm of the Ten Commandments but it was not enough. Whether following the Commandments amounts to ten percent or 99 percent, the point Jesus made (I think) is that it is not enough. It has to be 100 percent. That’s the sacrifice the RYR was unwilling to make.

Donald: When tithes are taken out of salary, you don’t really notice it much, and it’s therefore not that much of a sacrifice. We can set that up now easily, on the Internet.

Michael: We generally assume in church that we can choose to worship either God or the Devil, but Jesus said the choice is God or Mammon. I wonder why?

Robin: We can go too far the other way in our giving. Some people give away so much that they resort to eating cat food. How much this weighs in the balance at judgment is not clear. What is clear is that we have been given some specifics, presumably for a reason. There are ten Commandments, not five or nine. When things are not clear, we must turn to God for guidance.

Donald: Millennials seem apprehensive of institutions. The next generation might feel differently from previous generations about tithing and other aspects of church organization.

Don: Does this not call for a re-assessment of what Jesus means in His “render” statement? Is the specified ten percent of income to be gross, net, pretax or post-tax, etc.? Will Millennials know, or care? Yet the implications for the institution are great.

Michael raised the issue of civil disobedience. What does the Bible teach us about resisting government?

Donald: Or about resisting church?!

Anonymous: The parable of the steward who squandered his master’s money might have something to teach us.

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