Summary: The question about taxes to Caesar in Luke 20:19-26 shows us the distinction between the authority of the government and the authority of God.
Luke described Jesus’ final week on earth, and began with his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (19:28-40). As Jesus drew near the city of Jerusalem he burst into tears and wept over the city because of the coming judgment on people who refused to repent of their sin and believe in him (19:41-44). The following day, Monday, Jesus returned to the temple and physically drove out the merchants who were selling their wares and obscuring people’s access to God (19:45-48). Jesus’ action enraged the religious rulers, who challenged his authority to do what he did. But Jesus masterfully answered them, and then told them a parable about God taking away the kingdom from Israel (20:1-18). This also infuriated the religious leaders who tried to trap him with a question about paying taxes to Caesar.
19 The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people. 20 So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor. 21 So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God. 22 Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” 23 But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, 24 “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” 25 He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 26 And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent. (Luke 20:19-26 (quickview) )
Philip Graham Ryken writes the following in his commentary, “If you want to start a good argument, start talking about religion, or politics – either one. But if you want to start a war, then bring your religion into your politics.”
Religion and politics can be as combustible as fire and gasoline. This volatile combination seems to be true of all kinds of religions and all kinds of politics. For example, it was true of the Crusades, the Inquisition, Apartheid in South Africa, Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Jews and Arabs in Israel, and, of course ISIS today. One could go on with many other examples.
My point is not to argue for a particular political philosophy. Rather, my point is simply to say that it is difficult to understand the relationship between politics and religion. And when we get it wrong, as we often do, then it causes no end of problems.
One of the best places to go to understand the relationship between religion and politics is Jesus’ interaction with the scribes and chief priests, just days before he was crucified. Jesus’ answer to the question of the religious rulers is simple and yet also profound.