15 Then the Pharisees met together to find a way to trap Jesus in his words. 16 They sent their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are genuine and that you teach God’s way as it really is. We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions, because you don’t show favoritism. 17 So tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
18 Knowing their evil motives, Jesus replied, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used to pay the tax.” And they brought him a denarion. 20 “Whose image and inscription is this?” he asked.
21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” 22 When they heard this they were astonished, and they departed. (CEB)
The Things That Are God’s
I don’t know many people who like paying taxes. I mean, yes, we all benefit from what taxes provide, but I don’t know anyone who appreciates how much money the government wastes and misuses. There have been studies released on that waste, and it’s kind of ugly.
Personally, I think that if God only asks for 10 percent, what’s the government to demand more than the creator of the universe? And, why make them so complicated?
Have you ever seen clergy taxes? The federal government can’t decide what to do with us clergy. The IRS says we’re employees, so we get a W-2. But the Social Security Administration says we’re self-employed, which means we have to pay the full 15.3% of self-employment tax ourselves in quarterly installments. So, I’m an employee and I’m self-employed for doing the same job.
For Jews, paying taxes paid to Caesar was a theological problem. If they paid taxes, then they were essentially complicit in the activities of the pagan Roman government which had occupied and annexed their previously independent Hasmonean Kingdom in 63 BCE.
The team of Pharisees and Herodians who ask Jesus this first question is an unlikely alliance. The Herodians were a priestly group whose power base in Israel was founded largely on an alliance with the occupying Roman government. The Pharisees, by contrast, were a lay group within Judaism who tried to obey the Law of Moses to the letter.
For the Pharisees, compromising or partnering with the pagan Romans would have been theologically unthinkable. Only a mutual distaste for Jesus could have brought these two parties together in an attempt to trap and discredit someone they saw as mutually problematic.
The exchange begins with a bit of flattery, which functions as a setup for the trick question that follows. The effect of their praise is to say, Okay mister smarty-pants, let’s see what you do with this one. The question has to do with the religious legality of paying taxes to the Roman emperor. For a quarter of a century, the Jews had been forced to pay a head tax to the Roman government in Roman currency. Some Jews rested easy with Roman rule and supported the tax. This group of supporters was in the minority, and probably included the Herodians.
Most citizens of Judah, however, reacted to the idea of paying money to the pagan emperor with distaste ranging from mild provocation to seething insurrection. In fact, when the tax was established in A.D. 6, there was a small-scale armed revolt. Adding insult to injury was the fact that the tax, which amounted to a denarius, was most often paid with the common denarius coin. This coin was minted with the image of Caesar Tiberius and carried the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus and high priest.”
The inscription, alone, was an offense to Jews who believed the Lord alone is God. Not to mention the fact that the coin had an image on it, which was quasi-forbidden within Judaism. So they had to pay a tax to their occupiers—the Romans—whom they hated, and they were forced to pay it with a Roman coin that claimed that the Roman Emperor was a god and high priest.
And the Romans wondered why that didn’t go over well.
So, to raise the question about paying taxes to the emperor was to pull the scab off of a political and theological wound, which is exactly what Jesus’ questioners did. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” They intended to put Jesus into a precarious position.
If Jesus were to say, No, according to the Law of God it is not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, then the Roman government would move in on him as a dangerous political agitator and enemy of the Roman State. Then again, if Jesus were to say, Yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, then he would have lost all credibility with many of the people who paid the tax, but did so against their will because they saw the tax as an illegal act of an oppressor government and a moral affront to their religion.
This was a great question for the Pharisees and Herodians to ask because it seemed to be a perfect catch 22. They could discredit Jesus with either answer he gave. This was also an important question for the people to consider, and the people in the crowds were listening. What would Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth, say?
Jesus was aware of the intended treachery of his questioners, and he cleverly sidestepped their trap. First, he asked them to show him one of the tax coins, which means that he didn’t have one of the coins on his person, but at least one of his questioners did! (Brilliant move. First point goes to Jesus).
He asked, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” And Jesus said, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” In other words, Jesus says, The coin has Caesar’s image and inscription on it, so give the filthy thing back to Caesar.
There are two ways to understand Jesus’ statement: a mild way and a more radical way. The mild way interprets Jesus’ words to mean the tax is not the issue. You pay the tax with Roman coins, and they bear the emperor’s image and belong to the emperor. So give the emperor his little coins back and get on about the weightier issue of rendering your lives to God. The coin is created in the emperor’s image, but you are created in the image of God; so give the stupid little coin to the emperor, and give your whole self to the God who owns you.
The more radical way is that Jesus refuses to answer the question and actually turns the tables on his examiners, showing them up as two-faced hypocrites. The question they posed to Jesus was designed to allow Jesus two equally bad alternatives. In effect they ask Jesus, “Are you a foolish, uncompromising revolutionary whose allegiance to the kingdom of heaven is actually a political revolution in disguise, or are you a smooth-talking street preacher who stirs people up with persuasive speech of God’s majesty, but who underneath advocates a policy of “let’s just get along” with the Roman Gentile pigs?
Jesus responds to this trick question with a tricky maneuver of his own. When he asks them to show him a tax coin, they unsuspectingly reach into their own purses and withdraw the evidence that exposes them—not him—as deceptive and hypocritical compromisers with Rome. They are the ones carrying around Caesar’s money, not Jesus. They are the ones who have the emperor’s image in their pocketbooks. They are the ones who have already bought into the pagan system.
In this more radical interpretation, Jesus’ words mean, that everybody has to decide between Caesar and God. No one can serve two masters. The Pharisees and Herodians seem to have already made their decision by what they carried in their pockets. They had forged their convenient compromise between their duty to God and the Roman State. But what about their obligation to God? Jesus says, “Render to God what belongs to God.” Choose this day whom you will serve.
What Jesus suggests is that, although we may have to live under this or that Caesar, and we may have to pay this or that tax, we ourselves never belong to Caesar. We belong, body and soul, to the Living God, and we are to render to God what belongs to God’s. To render our lives to God means to give up our own will and desires for the will and desires of God. It means uncompromising obedience to the God who created us, and created all things.
Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and give to God the things that are God’s. What God desires is us, but we have to give ourselves to God through loving obedience. Part of the way we do that is by recognizing that we belong to God.
We define ourselves in many ways and are usually proud of those definitions. It’s usually pretty easy to spot a Cameron Crazy (a Duke Basketball fan, for those of you who aren’t sports nuts), and you’d better not mistake a Buckeye for a Wolverine unless you’ve got a death wish. People take pride in being American, Canadian, being British, German, Irish, or Polish. What do we think of as our most defining characteristic? Belonging to God is the only defining characteristic that really matters: not the color of our skin, not the work we do, not which city we’re from, not which state we’re from, not our national citizenship, not our level of education, not our annual income.
God is love, and God’s love is our most defining characteristic, both to ourselves and to others. There will come a day when all of humankind will stand before their God and creator, and the only characteristic that will matter at all will be that we belong to God. Once we recognize that we belong to God, we begin to recognize that everything we have belongs to God as well.
Give to God the things that belong to God. What does God want? All of us. Every last bit of every one of us.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!