Summary: Jesus’ answer forms the foundation of understanding the Church’s & the Christian’s role in the world, politics, and government.
This is the most famous of the debates because of the brilliance of the answer. Indeed, it is an answer that forms the foundation of understanding the Church’s & the Christian’s role in the world, politics, and government.
13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words.
As we saw last week, the religious leaders were beaten rather soundly by Jesus in their attempt to shame him. Slipping away, they set about finding another way to publicly embarrass him and create either trouble for him with the Jewish crowd or with the Roman authorities. In their common hatred of Jesus, two groups who normally would be opposed to each other unite for the next attack.
Early in Jesus’ ministry the Pharisees and Herodians had met to plot strategy, not merely to shame Jesus, but to kill him (3:6). I mentioned they would normally be opposed to each other. Perhaps the better understanding is that they had different interests. The Pharisees were obsessed with law keeping as a means of righteousness. The Herodians, most likely, were merely focused on the political agenda of supporting the rule of the Herod dynasty. Each had a love-hate relationship with Rome. They resented Roman occupation, but on the other hand, Rome kept peace and made Herod’s power possible.
So a representative group of the Pharisees and Herodians come to Jesus. Most likely, they are select men chosen for their shrewdness and debating ability.
14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.
Oh, these shrewd men! They project themselves as respectful of Jesus, while at the same time try to set him up for a fall. Their words are not so much an attempt to puff up Jesus, as they are meant to arouse the expectations of the crowd. They want Jesus to feel the pressure of the crowd when they ask their question. It would have worked with me. My heart would be beating rapidly as I suspiciously wait for the shot I know is coming.
Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”
What a tough question! I can’t think of a more difficult position to make Jesus take publicly. Let’s consider why this question is so dangerous to answer.
The issue of paying taxes is always a controversial one regardless the time and circumstance. If I were to state a position on taxes from the pulpit, I would undoubtedly offend some of you, even so much that you may not return. The Jews did not like taxes anymore than Americans, but for even stronger reasons. We may complain about the rate of taxes and the zeal of the IRS in collecting. They also complained about both, but also had to contend with a system that by its very nature invited corruption and oppression. People bid to be collectors because it was a lucrative business. They made their money by overcharging the citizens. How would you like a system in which an IRS collector received a commission based on the amount of money he could collect from you?
The Jews also hated paying taxes that went to an empire that had conquered them. Theirs was an occupied country. They bitterly resented the presence of Roman soldiers and officials, and it was especially galling to pay taxes to support these very people.
But there was one more element involved that superceded all these other concerns. That element involved religion. Israel was a theocracy. Though it was no longer an independent country, it nevertheless was a country that regarded itself as God’s kingdom. The people belonged to God; they were under his authority. To the Zealots, a nationalistic movement with its own terrorist wing, paying taxes to Rome was akin to treason. God’s honor was at stake.
It doesn’t matter how much taxes are being paid; it matters to whom they go. It matters because they are a statement of whose authority the payer is under. The question really is this: To whom do we owe allegiance: Caesar or God?
Needless to say, Jesus is put in a very difficult spot. We can easily imagine the uproar of the crowd if he even fudged on the matter. That’s a big factor in the whole question. Jesus does not have the luxury to discuss the “complexities” of the issue. He will be judged immediately by the first statement he makes. He can’t say, “That’s a complicated issue to deal with.” He certainly can’t say, “Some people may not be completely satisfied with my answer.” Every public debater knows, as well as every political candidate, that the audience has to be positively engaged immediately or will lose interest or become hostile.