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.