Then they sent to (Jesus) some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.
This is a very “funny” story if we know what’s at play here, so let’s take a few minutes to understand the background and the characters involved. There are two groups in this story who come to attack Jesus. One are the Pharisees, the other are the Chief Priests. They sent “spies” to keep a close watch on Jesus. These guys pretended to be sincere, but were hoping to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the governor (see Luke 20:20). I get people like this coming to meet me sometimes. It’s funny because you can spot them a mile away.
So, these two groups — the Pharisees and the Chief Priests — are out to get Jesus. You’ve undoubtedly heard of the Pharisees before. They were the religious teachers of the law, very legalistic in their attitude towards the faith. (If you haven’t heard the term before, legalism is when we focus more on following rules than establishing relationship; it’s a word we need to know, because we need to recognize it when we see it). So, okay, the Pharisees hated Jesus because not only did he keep breaking their laws, he kept scolding them for their emphasis on external displays of piety rather than internal holiness. That’s again the legalism thing I just spoke about.
Now, the Chief Priests were the temple priests, and they hated Jesus because a few days earlier he had created havoc to their business by throwing out the money-changers and driving out the animals. They were feeling threatened by him too. So the two groups got together, and this is the funny thing: they didn’t like each other. But their united hatred for Jesus brought them together and they decided the best way to take him down was get him in trouble either with the people or with the authorities, so they didn’t get their own hands dirty.
So, they sent “spies” to trick him and trap him. The method is standard. You’ll often see salesmen use the same tactics. First, flatter the guy. This gets him to lower his defenses. Then, once you are set up, they ask you the loaded question, or, if you prefer, the trick question. So, don’t fall for flattery; and don’t attempt to flatter others. Anyway, after flattering Jesus, they ask him: Is it lawful to pay taxes to the empowered or not? If Jesus says that Roman taxation is right, then they can turn people against him, like they turned people against the tax collectors. If he says that taxation is wrong, they can paint him as a zealot to the rulers. The zealots were militant freedom fighters.
Scripture says that, “knowing their hypocrisy” — we will discover the hypocrisy in a moment — “he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test?”” He’s letting them know he knows he’s being set up. Then, he asks for a coin, and they give him one, not realizing he’s just turned the tables and exposing their hypocrisy. By carrying the coin, which had the emperor’s head, they were acknowledging their obligation to Rome. They had to pay for everything in Roman currency. “Whose head is this, and whose title?” When they say, “The emperor” he replies, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” They were already doing the former, as we just saw. Jesus was telling them they now needed to do the latter, which they weren’t doing! To give God what was God’s.
There are at least half a dozen lessons from today’s story, but I’d like YOU to think about them. However, I will give you one. There are two forces have the power to unite people. Hate and love. We see hate uniting the Pharisees and the Chief Priests here, and what it makes them do is what hate always makes people do: destroy and kill. But love, which also unites, has the power to heal and give life. Which would you rather do?
And this is not a trick question.