Summary: Jesus is showing how citizens have both civic and moral obligations; we obey secular law yet we owe everything to God, Who deserves our primary allegiance.
An IRS agent contacted a taxpayer to conduct an audit. He noted, “Our records show that you still have some money left over after paying your taxes. How do you account for that?” Another taxpayer told his attorney that when he dies, to place his ashes in an envelope and mail it to the IRS with a note saying: “Now you have everything.”
The Jews of Jesus’ day were vexed at living under a foreign, pagan government, whose rule was enforced by an army of occupation. The Jews paid a land tax, an income tax, a poll tax, an import tax, a tax on grain, wine, and oil. We may live in “Taxachusetts”, but things were far worse in First Century Israel! The religious leaders wanted to put Jesus on trial for heresy but they had no civil authority and so they were left with charging Jesus with sedition against Rome.
The question posed was devious--if Jesus spoke in favor of taxation, He appear disloyal to Israel and would drop considerably in His popularity; if He spoke against paying taxation He would be undermining the state and would sound like a dangerous revolutionary. His enemies were prepared to hand Him over to Pilate, to the very government they despised. Either way Jesus answers, He’s in big trouble; a seemingly no-win scenario.
The spies address Jesus with flattery (21), outwardly appearing to honor Him as a respected teacher. They claim to value His opinion…yet they really hated Him and wanted to discredit Him. What they say about Him is absolutely true, except they don’t believe it. The word “catch” in verse 20 was used in the sense of snaring animals in a trap. Their loaded question oozed with hypocrisy.
Their question, “is it permissible/right?” (22) refers to the Law of Moses. For centuries the Jews enjoyed a theocracy, but now they were under a harsh, secular rule. God-fearing people were conflicted; should they support such a government with their hard-earned money? Although their motives were insincere, they posed a legitimate ethical question that raised the age-old conflict between church and state. When a government is corrupt is it right to give such an authority our obedience?
Jesus does not enter the trap set for Him. His answer catches everyone by surprise. Jesus was not (as some hoped) a political revolutionary…but neither was He a nationalist. His answer says two things: government has the right to exist, and its presence does not negate our allegiance to God. This is the closest Jesus ever comes to making a political statement. We have parallel duties to God and our government. When these two authorities are in conflict, our primary allegiance is to God. While Caesar had a right to impose taxation on his Jewish subjects, he had no claim on their souls. In His reply, Jesus showed no disloyalty to human government or to the Law of God.
He asks for a coin, and by handing one over, His enemies were reluctantly admitting that they were under Caesar’s rule. The graven image of Caesar was on the coin. The only thing missing was the words “In Caesar We Trust!” Because Caesar was honored as a god, possessing such a coin was like carrying an idol in your pocket!