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 that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”
But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
One of my favorite psalms is Psalm 18. In it, the psalmist speaks of God, saying, “To the faithful you show yourself faithful, to the blameless you show yourself blameless, to the pure you show yourself pure, but to the devious you show yourself shrewd” (Psalm 18:25-26). I was reminded of the last part when reading today’s passage. Very deviously, the Pharisees try to trap Jesus into making a blunder that could get him killed, but very shrewdly, Jesus traps them in their own trap.
What was the trap? They asked Jesus if he believed it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not. Why was it a trap? Because if he said the Jews should pay taxes to the emperor, he would be implicitly stating he recognized Rome’s right to rule over them, discrediting his preaching about the kingdom of God. On the other hand, if he said the Jews should not pay taxes to the emperor, he would be guilty of sedition, and they could report him to the authorities who could have him put to death. Devious, ya?
Jesus was, of course, unfazed. He asked them for the coin used for the tax and the instant they gave him one they knew they had lost the battle. Why? Because it was a ROMAN coin, and the fact that they were carrying such a coin with them indicated that they acknowledged THEY were subjects of Rome. Then, to further hammer it in, Jesus asked them whose head was embossed on it. And, by answering that it was the emperor’s, they were acknowledging him as THEIR ruler. They had fallen into their own trap.
Instead of hammering the point in, Jesus made an enigmatic statement. I quote a more dramatic translation. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God, the things that are God’s.” We are citizens of heaven, but we are also citizens of countries in which we live. There are civic obligations we have towards these countries. However, when a conflict arises between what God asks and what a country asks, our primary obedience should always be to God, even if it means punishment.
Early in the Acts of the Apostles we find Peter and John arrested by temple guards because they were preaching about Jesus. When they were commanded not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus, Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to listen to him?” (see Acts 4:1-22). Jesus had warned them to expect trouble: “On my account you will be arrested, but do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (see Matthew 10:16-20).
He prefaced this by telling them to “be innocent as doves but shrewd as snakes.” If you ever wondered why he told us to be shrewd, let me repeat what the psalmist said about God: To the pure you show yourself pure, but to the devious you show yourself shrewd.” So! Now you know what to do. And what to expect.
May the Spirit be with you.