“poll-tax.” The Greek word is kēnsos (#2778 κῆνσος; pronounced kane’-sos). In the New Testament it referred to the tax or tribute levied on individuals, and it was to be paid yearly. It is not an income tax, a property tax, or a toll. Since it is a tax on every adult we would call it a poll-tax or capitation tax. The Jews especially hated this tax, because it was seen as a specific sign of servitude to Rome, and therefore the Rabbis had many disputes among themselves and with others about paying it.
This was a well thought through trap. It is recorded in three of the four Gospels: Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; and Luke 20:20-26. This event occurred in the last week of Jesus life, and especially in those latter days of Jesus life the authorities were actively seeking a way to discredit and arrest him, and the subject of taxes could provide a way for them to trap him.
Paying taxes was always a “hot topic,” and most people hated to pay them. To heighten the tension of the situation (and thus the chance of Jesus making a misstatement and being trapped) the Pharisees, who took issue with Rome on many issues, brought with them the Herodians, who were Jews who supported Rome and supported paying taxes to Rome (cp. Matt. 22:16; Mark 12:13). There was a natural animosity between these two groups, but it also seemed natural that they would ask Jesus, a teacher from Galilee with no party affiliation, about taxes, something that no doubt the Pharisees and Herodians argued about regularly. Thus, although the Jews were trying to trap Jesus by asking him the question, people in the crowd would not have thought it out of character for them to ask Jesus about paying the poll-tax.
They began the trap by flattering Jesus and telling him how they knew he only cared about teaching the true way of God (Mark 12:14; Luke 20:21). This was more than just flattery. It was designed to make sure that Jesus would not simply dodge the issue and refuse to answer the question. If he did not care about what people thought, and taught the way of God, he would answer clearly and directly—something basically guaranteed to get him in trouble either way he answered. If he answered it was lawful to pay, the people would have doubted his being a teacher from God. If he answered it was not lawful to pay, he would have been in trouble with the Roman authorities.
The Pharisees then asked Jesus if it was “lawful” to pay taxes to Caesar. The main idea behind the word “lawful” seems to be if paying the tax, and thus acknowledging Rome’s authority over people individually, broached God’s role as the sole true authority over the people. Jesus’ answer was godly and wise: the money belonged to Caesar, so give back to Caesar what was his. This answer, of course, amounts to paying the tax, but with a different emphasis. It is not that in paying the tax Jesus recognized the authority of Caesar over him, it was simply that the money was not his to begin with. It belonged to Caesar. Jesus demonstrated over and over in his ministry that if people would trust God, then God would take care of them. It was okay with God if people used money borrowed from Caesar to help make life easier, but God also could take care of people without borrowed money, something He did regularly, for example in multiplying food for hungry people.
There is quite a bit on paying taxes in the Bible, and Jesus addressed it on a couple different occasions. For example, besides this poll tax, he spoke of the half-shekel temple tax in Matthew 17:25-27. Never did Jesus support not paying taxes for the reason most people do not like to pay taxes—that the government wastes the money or spends it unwisely. The fact is that in biblical times the government was not answerable to the people. There were no elections, and certainly no promises of being “fair,” being “transparent” with the tax money, or using it for the good of the people and the education of children. The ruler used it any way he wanted, and that was the way it had always been. In biblical times people had no recourse from unfair taxes, they paid them or suffered. They could be sent to jail or sometimes be sold into slavery. Today taxes are as hated as they have ever been, but in many countries, such as the USA or Great Brittan, the people have the right to vote for representatives who will recognize their right to keep that which they have worked for. Sadly, the number of people who want a free ride on the backs of others keeps growing, so it is harder and harder to get a majority to vote to allow a person to keep the money he works for. The standard communist idea, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” is more and more the global standard, which means that those people who work hard and should have more just have more taken away from them by those in power.
In spite of that, God’s way is not lying and cheating on taxes, but realizing that mankind does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God; and storing up treasure in heaven by living a holy lifestyle. Certainly there have been times in history when people revolted against their government and overthrew it, but that is totally different from an individual simply not paying taxes because he thinks they are unfair. Christians need to realize that this world will never be fair, just, or right, and the joy of life is in fellowship with God and Christ, and with likeminded believers.