Summary: Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God What is God’s
When I first thought about using this reading the advice I got was quite clear. Choose another one! Well, that was straight to the point. I looked up this reading in the various Bible commentaries I have and found that some of them just ignore this reading. I couldn’t even find a hymn based on it. Yet this just made me more curious and I started to delve deeper. Well, no-one has ever said I know what is good for me!
I think one of the things that make this reading harder to understand is that part of it is so well known. How many people don’t know the saying “Render unto Caesar”? And I think it is this familiarity that keeps us from seeing the deeper meaning in this passage.
The reading is quite complex and intricate for such a short amount of words. Yet in it we will find conspiracy and cunning, plans and alliances, traps and escapes. All this in just 154 words.
The story starts with the Jewish Church leaders looking for some way to get rid of Jesus. They know that they do not have any power to do anything to him themselves, except flog him and that might just have made Jesus more popular. So they tried to find ways to get him to say something against the Romans so they can take over and do something to keep Jesus quiet. But this has a small problem. A lot of the ordinary people regard Jesus as a prophet and just giving him to the Romans could make things difficult as well.
So they come up with a plan that, if it works, and they see no reason why it won’t, what ever Jesus does will upset one side or another. As is often the case, these leaders are not willing to take a chance themselves or to show which side they are on and they get others to do their dirty work.
This is their plan. There were two main groups arguing against each other at that time. One was the Herodians. These were not a church group but a group of Jewish people who supported Herod Antipas and wanted closer and better ties with Rome. They supported Roman taxation believed it was only right that everyone pay taxes. This tax was not based on income but was like a poll tax, something that everyone had to pay.
The other group was the Pharisees. This group was a religious group and they objected strenuously against paying anything to Rome, claiming it was a heresy to do so. They based this claim on the fact the tax had to be paid in Roman coins which had an image of Caesar on them. They refused to pay anything except the Temple Tax, which was paid in Jewish shekels.
It is quite hard to see how two such opposing forces could work together, but they did. They had, in fact, been working together and trying for some time to come up with an idea. The Pharisees and the Herodians had started plotting together when Jesus had healed a man with a shrivelled hand on the Sabbath. The way Jesus spoke then stopped them from taking action but now they thought that they had a foolproof plan.
They thought they had a question, that no matter what Jesus answered, he would condemn himself. The question was “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” The conspirators thought the there were only two possible answers. Yes, it is right to pay taxes or No it is not right. Either answer would condemn Jesus.
If Jesus said it was right to pay taxes, he would be accused of being a traitor to the Jews and of being in favour of the Roman Occupation. This would alienate him from all his supporters.
If Jesus were to say it was wrong to pay taxes, then he would prove he was against Rome. The Jewish leaders would be able to say Jesus had shown himself to be a revolutionary and he could be handed over for trial and execution.
Either result would please those who put this plan in action. Whatever happened, Jesus would be out of the way and they would not get the blame for it. They must have felt really pleased with their cunning plan.
So they sent off their team (Luke, in his version, calls them spies) to set up Jesus. Their first action was to try and flatter Jesus and lull him into a false sense of security. They say that they know Jesus to be a man of integrity who would not say anything just because it was easy or convenient, but would speak fairly and honestly. Then they ask their question.
I bet they smiled to themselves and thought “Gotcha!” as they waited for an answer. But I also bet they did not laugh for long.