Summary: What conclusions can we draw from these enigmatic words of Jesus?
“Render unto Caesar’s the things that are Caesars and to God the things that are of God” (Mt. 22:21)
I would like to look at our Gospel lesson today. On the face of it, it seems a simple story, but there is a lot of skulduggery in the background.
Firstly, look at the two parties who opposed Jesus on this occasion: the Pharisees and the Herodians.
The subtlety of the situation has been lost to us over the centuries.
In any other situation, these two groups wouldn’t have passed the time of day with each other.
The Pharisees were “devout” Jews. They were sworn enemies of the Romans and vigorously opposed Roman rule. And they stood against paying taxes to Caesar.
The Herodians, on the other hand, were the party of that Roman stooge, Herod. They were the wealthy and privileged class who gladly collaborated with the enemy - helping them rule the Jews - in exchange for status and power in society. So they would have no problems in paying taxes to Caesar!!
The adage: “My enemy’s enemy is my friend.” was certainly true that day
The enemies of Rome and friends of Rome were united in their opposition to Jesus.
Story: In today’s parlance, it is a little bit like saying that Sinn Fein and Ian Paisley’s DUP issued a joint policy statement on devolved power sharing in Northern Ireland!!
And so they put the “Catch 22” question to Jesus
“Is it lawful to give a poll tax to Caesar or not?”. (Mt 22:17 NASB)
At first blush it looks quite an innocent question. If you asked me today if we should pay council taxes or not – I wouldn’t have any problems giving you an answer!!!
But if Jesus said “Yes” or “No” he was in trouble.
Let’s look at the background:
The tax that they are referring was the “poll tax” – and we know how popular “poll taxes “ can be – even in recent history. You may recall that the introduction of the “poll tax” was the downfall of Margaret Thatcher!!
The first Century “poll tax” was payable directly to Caesar. It was one denarius - about one day’s wage.
Of all the taxes of the day, this “poll tax” was most problematic for the Jews.
The “poll tax” of all the taxes was uniquely required in Roman currency – with coins that bore the image of Caesar. The coin was particularly objectionable to the pious Jews because it bore the “graven image” of Caesar, and an inscription describing him as “son of a god”. So in effect contravening the First of the Ten Commandments. (Matthew - R.T. FRance p.314-315)
In contrast, for everyday commerce, special copper coins were used, without these features.
So the objectionable coinage was only used to pay the “poll tax”.
So Jesus had a real dilemma.
1. If he said “yes”
Jesus had a great following among pious Jews – Jews to whom the poll tax was particularly offensive.
So if Jesus said: “Yes, it is fine to pay the tax to Caesar”, he risked losing his popular power base.
2. If he said “no”
If he were to answer, “No, you should not pay Caesar anything”, the Herodians would have had him up on a charge of sedition and would have had little problem persuading the Romans to take Jesus out of circulation.
3. So what did Jesus do.
He asked for a coin, but not just any old coin. He asked for the coin used to pay the tax. Immediately, someone reached into his pocket and pulls a denarius out.
Jesus took it in his hand and looked at it – with the Roman emperor’s image on it and said: “Render unto Caesar’s the things that are Caesars and to God the things that are of God” (Mt. 22:21)
And his accusers were stunned. So much so that they didn’t try to coax more out of him than that .
And over the centuries, theologians have argued about what Jesus meant.
One interpretation has been that Jesus’ reply is saying “Yes pay the Romans their taxes”.
And others – in particular the liberation theologians of South America- have interpreted Jesus saying in a completely opposite sense. As Caesar is an invader and dictator who has not right here, he is not due anything at all – except the boot to get him out.
What can we draw from this today?
The problem is not such a hot potato in our society as it was in Jesus day. In the first century AD, the state and religion were closely joined. "The cult of the gods and the power of the ruler" went hand in hand (Matthew - Michael Green p. 232-233)
But it is a real dilemma in countries where the State (such as certain Islamic and Communist states) persecutes Christians and demands their religious allegiance away from Christ.