Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.
Understanding And Applying the Text
God commanded the Jews to pay a tithe or tribute to Him in the Mosaic Law. (Exodus 30:13) There was a dispute in the first century among the Jews about paying tribute to Rome. To whom do they give tribute? Do they give it to Rome or to God? Rome demanded the tribute money God commanded for His own. Jews considered this a crime. Men cannot claim what belongs to God. The Jews considered the tribute, commanded in the Law, as evidence of their adoption. So paying tax to Rome instead of God deprived them of that honor. In fact, the poorer a man the more this issue raised civil sedition in him.
We see in this passage the time the Pharisees gave up trying to take Jesus. They had sent Temple guards to arrest him. They themselves had tried to seize Him. They could never win a theological debate. He bested them every time. So they had to turn him over to the Romans.
All they needed was a reason. Catching Jesus in an act of sedition was perfect. They identified what they thought was an easy target. Jesus’ adherence to the Law was absolute. He was unflinching in His defense of the Mosaic Law. He condemned those who did not follow the Law. Paying the tithe was in the Mosaic law. And paying the civil tax was in Roman law. So which one were they to do?
We may look at this and think this was an easy one for Jesus. Do both. Duh! But it was not that simple in the Jewish mind. If they paid tribute to Rome, they were taking away what belonged to God. Paying tribute to Rome at all was elevating men to a place equal to God. It may help to use the word “tribute” instead of “tax.” In the Jewish mind, this was more than money this was giving the honor which belonged to God to men.
If Jesus said to pay Rome rather than God. He would violate the Mosaic law. If He said to pay tribute to God rather than Rome, he breaks Roman law. And for that, Rome would kill Him. The way they saw it they could not lose.
The Pharisees did not come themselves. They sent their disciples. They knew Jesus would spot the trap if they came. So they sent someone else. They hoped Jesus would not recognize them. They also sent Herodians. Herodians were Jews who were favorable to Rome.
Herod was half-Jew. Those who wanted the Law kept with exactness condemned him. They condemned both him and his impure worship. But he had his supporters among the Jews. These were the Herodians. Herodians gave plausible excuses for Herod’s false doctrine. The Pharisees and the Herodians were bitter rivals. But they united under a mutual hatred of Jesus.
When they came, they came with false admiration. They pretended to be subject to Christ’s teaching. In their pretense, we learn what makes a true teacher of God’s word. A true teacher teaches the truth. He teaches without caring about men’s opinions. He does not debase the truth with a disguise to make it more palatable. They are not swayed by appearances.
Jesus knew their motive. It is unclear rather it was through divine knowledge. It could have been the pretense was so thin Christ’s human nature could see through it. But in either case, the spirit of discernment is something we need to ask God for every day.
The setup to the question shows the answer they wanted. If they could get Jesus to say not to pay taxes to Rome, the Romans would take care of Him.
Christ’s response to their trick question was to ask for a coin. When they handed Him the coin, they thought it was not important. Note: Jesus did not ask for a coin. He asked for a coin for the Roman tax. This was important to break their snare. The coin had Caesar’s image. So the authority of Rome was in general acceptance. It was evident the Jews had agreed to come under an obligation to pay tribute. They had given the Romans the power of the sword. The question about paying tribute was mute. Paying taxes is the result of accepting the government’s civil protection.
Jesus reminded them the coin attested to their subjugation to Rome. It was as if he had said, “If you don’t want to pay tribute, don’t be subjects of the Roman Empire.” But the money testifies to Caesar ruling over you. They had given their silent consent. They had lost the liberty they claimed.
Christ refuted the error that the people of God needed freedom from human authority. Paul also makes this point. Obeying civil laws and authority did not lessen their service to God. (Romans 13:7.) In short, Christ stated it does not violate God’s authority. Nor does it lessen service to Him to obey Rome. In his letter to the Romans, Paul makes the same point.
Their hypocrisy stood up and waved a red flag. They allowed and endorsed corruption of service to God. Yet they stumbled over this unimportant issue. We fall into the same trap.
We can look at this and say, “Jesus did not say to pay taxes to Rome. He said to pay Rome what was Rome’s. But what is Rome’s? If I work, does not the money I earn belong to me? So what is the government? I could use bitcoin. The government does not even issue that. Or I could barter. There is no exchange of money at all with barter.”
When we ask that, it is an exercise in missing the point. We are like the Pharisee who asked, ”Who is my neighbor?” And Jesus responded with the parable of the good Samaritan. We are looking for a loophole to fulfill our selfish desires.
Jesus’ teaching extends to us all. It applies to us no matter our job or calling. We are to perform the duty we owe to other men. Children are to submit to their parents. Employees are to submit to their employers. We are to be courteous and obliging to each other. We are bound by the law of charity, as long as God retains the highest authority. We remain subordinate to men. And God remains over all men. Those who destroy the political order rebel against God. Obedience to governmental authorities remains joined to the worship and fear of God. Even when the government is evil. But when governments claim any authority belonging to God, we are to oppose it.