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Render Unto Caesar
15Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap Him in His words. 16They sent their disciples to Him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
18But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought Him a denarius, 20and He asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?”
21“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then He said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” 22When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left Him and went away.
In the previous few sections, Jesus has been telling parables, directed primarily at the chief priests and Pharisees. These parables have been depicting the rejection of the prophets and the Messiah by the children of Israel, under the leadership of the chief priests and Pharisees.
The Pharisees, apparently offended by this, set to action: “Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap Him in His words. They sent their disciples to Him along with the Herodians. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not’” (vss. 15–17). The Pharisees, knowing that Jesus was a man of wisdom, foresaw how difficult it would be to “trap Jesus in His words”, so they saw it necessary to “go out and lay plans” of how to accomplish such a thing. It’s somewhat unusual that religious leaders, who should guide people to the truth, would go out of their way to entrap someone in their talk. But the desire of the Pharisees was to discredit Jesus before the crowds, and possibly even get Him to say something for which He could be arrested.
Their allies, in this episode, were the “Herodians”. The Herodians were “a party among the Jews, who were for a cheerful and entire subjection to the Roman emperor, and to Herod his deputy; and who made it their business to reconcile people to that government” [Henry]. This alliance between the Pharisees and Herodians was quite surprising. The Pharisees (and indeed most Jews of the time) hated being subjected to Rome; the Herodians encouraged cheerful subjection to Rome. Only the common bond of strong opposition to Jesus could bring such diverse groups together in alliance. “How bitter the Pharisees’s hostility was [toward Jesus] is shown by their willingness to unite with Herodians” [Thomas, 320].
They try to hide their corrupt motives with flattery: “‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are’” (vs. 16). Flattery can be a powerful weapon on mere men. Jesus knows the heart, though. “They are not genuinely seeking an opinion from Jesus; they speak flattering words to Him and proceed to ask a question aimed at destroying Him. That is not the action of honest men but of hypocrites” [Morris, 557]. Granted, what they said in their flattery was actually true. Jesus, of course, was a “man of integrity”, He taught “the way of God in accordance with the truth”, He was not unduly “swayed” by powerful, wealthy or influential men.
Having primed Him (so they thought) with flattery, they go on and ask their question: “Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (vs. 17). They believed they had found the perfect question to trap Jesus. There was (seemingly) no answer He could make that would not get Him into some sort of trouble. If He said that it was right to pay taxes, the crowds would despise Him, for (by and large) they hated being under the oppressive power of Rome. No one really enjoys paying taxes. But the Jews of that time especially hated it, for it reinforced their submission to Rome. For the Jews, “paying the head-tax to Roman authorities was the most immediate and humiliating recognition of subjection to the heathen” [Broadus]. In fact, not too long before that, in the year AD 6, a revolt against taxation was led by a man named Judas of Galilee (not the apostle Judas). The historian Josephus (who lived at that time) tells us: “Under [Archelaus’s] administration it was that a certain Galilean, whose name was Judas, prevailed with his countrymen to revolt; and said they were cowards if they would endure to pay a tax to the Romans, and would, after God, submit to mortal men as their lords.” (Judas of Galilee is also mentioned in the Bible, see Acts 5:37). So, this subject was much on the mind of Jesus’ listeners. If Jesus said “yes” to the question, many (probably most) of his hearers would find it distasteful. “We may therefore be sure that among the easily excited crowds who filled the temple courts when Jesus was asked this question, there were many who regarded paying the poll-tax as the very badge of slavery to the heathen, and as treason against Jehovah, the theocratic king of Israel” [Broadus, 452].
On the other hand, if He said “no” to their question, the Herodians would, no doubt, seek to have Him arrested (which is what the Pharisees desired). The tax revolt of Judas of Galilee must certainly have put the Romans on-guard against any stirring of the crowds concerning taxation.
Note, the way that the questioners posed the question was very lawlerly. They demanded a yes or no answer: “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” They wanted the first word out of Jesus’ mouth to be “yes” or “no”. That one word would have caused a stir, giving Jesus no time to explain Himself further.
Jesus did not fall into their trap: “But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, ‘You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?’” (vs. 18). Jesus saw behind their stratagem, and instead of “yes” or “no”, the first words out of His mouth were: “You hypocrites”! “They hoped that they had disguised their real purpose so cleverly, that they must have been surprised to have the mask so quickly torn from their faces and to be exposed to public gaze in their true character as ‘hypocrites’” [Spurgeon, 320]. “It is impossible to deceive the Lord; He knows the hypocrite, whatsoever [garb] he puts on… And He will let the hypocrite know sometime that He will not be mocked” [Dickson].
Jesus did not only see their trap, His masterful answer avoided the trap they were trying to set: “‘Show me the coin used for paying the tax.’ They brought Him a denarius, and He asked them, ‘Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?’ ‘Caesar’s,’ they replied. Then He said to them, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s’” (vss. 18–21). Can there have been a better answer to the question? In a couple of sentences, Jesus clarified the whole matter; He settled years of controversy. Many of the Jewish people of the time felt guilty in paying the tax to Caesar’s government. They thought it was giving worship to Caesar, and thus, in violation of the first commandment. With His answer, Jesus put to rest all the guilt and apprehension they may have felt concerning paying the taxes. Give Caesar the coins! They are his. Look! His face and name are on the coins. God cares not that you give Caesar-headed coins to Caesar. Paying taxes is not an act of worship, but an act of civil obedience. “The Christian religion is no enemy to civil government, but a friend to it… It is the duty of subjects to render to magistrates that which, according to the laws of their country, is their due” [Henry].
Note well, that Jesus did not stop at the statement, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s”. Importantly, He went on to say, “…and to God what is God’s”. Far more important than the question of whether you are giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s, is the question of whether you are giving to God what is God’s. And it is not mere coinage that God wants. It is hearts, souls and minds that God wants. As Jesus will say towards the end of this very chapter in Matthew: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment” (Matt. 22:37).
We humans, most times, think way too small. We concentrate on the trivial, at the expense of the profound. We focus so much on where our coins end up, who will get our paper money. It sadly is the center of our lives: who ends up with our Ben Franklins. But God wants you to get your focus off your Ben Franklins, and to put your focus on His Son, Jesus Christ. He wants you to stop worrying so much about where you spend your pennies, and to worry rather how you are spending your life for Him.