Paying taxes to Caesar
Examining Matthew 22: 15 – 22 “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.”
On the last week of Jesus' earthly life, he rode into Jerusalem and was hailed as the Messiah. The people thought he was the conquering hero who would overthrow the Roman oppression. However, the day after they hailed him as Messiah, instead of overthrowing the Romans he overthrew the Jewish religious system, throwing the money-changers out of the temple. They didn't know quite how to take that, but the next day Jesus was back in the temple, teaching on the kingdom and preaching the gospel to a huge crowd of people.
The chief priests and the elders challenged Jesus’ authority, but then when Jesus asked them a question they had to admit they didn't know where John’s baptism came from. They must have been irate, humiliated, and incensed. They started looking for a way to arrest Jesus and probably fumed quietly while Jesus told another parable. Then they went out and laid plans to trap him (snare him, entangle him, literally).
They sent their disciples along with the Herodians. First of all, why their disciples? Because they were lesser known, and thus would be less suspect. Do you know who the Herodians were? They supported Roman authority in Palestine. The Pharisees were traditionalists, ritualists, and they were enemies of the Herodians. But the Pharisees had been plotting with the Herodians against Jesus ever since Jesus healed a man’s shriveled hand on the Sabbath (Luke 3). Both groups hated Jesus; the Pharisees because he was coming into Jerusalem as the messianic king, and the Herodians because he was coming as the royal king. So their plan was to trap Jesus. Look at what they said and how they said it: first they addressed him as “Teacher”, didaskalos in Greek, a term that denotes a very high honor on him, then more flattery, flattery, flattery – three expressions of praise. Then they hit hard in verse 17: “Is it right to pay taxes (give tribute) to Caesar or not?”
The tribute was a specific tax, like a census tax or a head count, and everyone had to pay it. The amount was one denarius. A denarius was one day's wage for a Roman soldier.
If Jesus answered yes they could claim he was not the Messiah. If he answered no they could report him to Rome and he’d be arrested.
Can’t you just imagine them stroking their beards and giving the villains’ evil laugh? Which answer do they hope to hear? We know exactly from Luke’s account. If you read Luke 20:20 you’ll see they hoped he’d say “no.”
BUT Jesus knew their intent. He called them hypocrites (stage players, actors, pretenders) and asked why they were trying to trap him – the Greek peirazo is “tempt” or “get him to sin”. He said, “Show me the coin.”
Here’s a picture of a denarius.
The head of the emperor was on one side and the other side showed him sitting on a throne wearing a crown and priestly garments. It was a huge slap in the face to the Jews, a reminder that they were under Roman rule, and also, this was a graven image. Big no-no.
Jesus answered “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” This “render” (some translations use "give") is the Greek word apodidomi which means “give back” or “discharge what is due”. Now look back at verse 17, they didn't ask if they were supposed to “give back” or “pay their debt”, they used a different word when they asked the question. You might have “pay taxes” in your translation, but it’s actually “give tribute”, meaning give it as a gift. So Jesus made it clear that they were just giving back what belonged to Caesar – it was a debt, not a gift. And therefore, we also need to pay our debts to God.
What is our debt to God? Worship. Don't make Caesar your God (or money, or fame, or alcohol, or your job…).