Summary: Giving to God what is His requires we recognize what bears His image and, thus, a duty toward Him.
The gospel for today has a saying of Jesus that is probably better known than anything else he ever said, with the possible exception of his words to Nicodemus about being born again. The odd thing about Jesus’ words in today’s gospel is this: were not answering the question put to him. So many commentators have taken Jesus words and have extrapolated from them an entire theology of two kingdoms: the kingdom of man and the kingdom of God and how these two kingdoms are supposed to relate to one another. God and Caesar, is what JESUS’ ENEMIES ARE asking about But, Jesus turns their attention to something else.
Consequently, today we will focus on what Jesus wanted his hearers to understand, and then, Lord willing, we’ll make an application of this to ourselves.
First lets set up the scene for yet another encounter between Jesus and his enemies among Israel’s religious leadership. They have decided to craft a question that will tangle him up. And, to do this, we find some very strange bedfellows in the planning committee: the Pharisees and the Herodians.
The Pharisees were, of course, the ultra-conservative religious party in Israel. The Temple leadership was riddled with men who were Pharisees. To the left of the Pharisees, were the Sadducees who I’d say were very much like liberal Episcopalians today: very much enamored of the ritualistic style, but simultaneously rejecting the supernatural substance of the Bible. The gospels show the Sadducees in a debate with Jesus about the resurrection of the dead, which they believed was a silly idea.
And, then, way out there on the left were the Herodians. These were Jews who – as the name implies – were staunch supporters of King Herod and his dynasty, which got its power from the Roman occupiers of Palestine. Judaism was, for them, at best a system of cultural ethics. They were all in favor of Rome, Roman rule, and the power of the Roman King Herod.
Now, it is the far-right-wing Pharisees and the far-left-wing Herodians who end up conspiring to trip up Jesus. If you see members of the John Birch Society teaming up with the Communist Party USA to entrap someone, that someone must be a Very Big Thorn in everybody’s side. And, that’s exactly what you have here.
So, they come up with what they suppose is a question Jesus cannot wriggle out of. They fashion a question for him that they suppose must be answered with a single Yes or No answer. After some obsequious sounding flattery, they put the question to Jesus this way: “What do you think: Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”
Now, the Romans levied several taxes on the Jews. There was something called the ground tax – and it a tax of ten percent of whatever came out of the ground – grains, and wine, and oil. Then there was the income tax, and by our standards this was very light indeed – just one percent of one’s cash income (with no deductions, of course). And, finally, there was the poll tax. It was also a flat tax: and it amounted to a denarius – which was approximately the wage of a common laborer for one day’s work – and it was levied on every male from age 14 through 65 and on ever female from age 12 through 65.
It was this poll tax that was the subject of the question put to Jesus by the Pharisees and the Herodians. It was a special tax, because it had to be paid in Roman silver coinage. Other business and tax matters could be paid in copper coinage, or in gold bullion, or similar mediums of exchange. But, the poll tax had to be paid with the silver denarius. And, these coins bore the image of Caesar, and they were inscribed with an inscription saying “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the divine Augustus.”
Now, this tax was a point of great controversy among the Jews. The Herodians, of course, were all in favor of the tax. They were in favor of all the Roman taxes. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were very much opposed to paying Caesar any taxes at all, for they still supposed that they were citizens of a theocracy, and that to pay Caesar taxes was to acknowledge his sovereignty in Israel.
But, the poll tax really made the Pharisees angry, because they had to use a coin which bore an graven image of someone who claimed filial descent from a god. For them, to pay this tax involved them in violation of the commandment against graven images, and it also involved them in the commandment to have no other gods but the God of Israel.