The Pharisees went off
and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech.
They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying,
“Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man
and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.
And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion,
for you do not regard a person’s status.
Tell us, then, what is your opinion:
Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
Knowing their malice, Jesus said,
“Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?
Show me the coin that pays the census tax.”
Then they handed him the Roman coin.
He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”
They replied, “Caesar’s.”
At that he said to them,
“Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar
and to God what belongs to God.”
Matthew 22: 15-21
While He was present on Earth, Jesus gave us God’s view of our mortal condition, and it often startled those who heard of it. Typical was the trap lain for him involving paying tribute to Caesar. If Christ had said pay no tribute, he would swiftly have been arrested by the Romans and condemned as a rebel. Tell the people to pay the tribute, and He would have been regarded as a collaborator, one of those Jews who sided with the hated Roman rulers. I assume whoever thought up this trap regarded it as foolproof and perhaps, in human terms, it was. Jesus however demolished it with contemptuous ease. He asked to see a Roman denarius, which had the face of Emperor Tiberius. No doubt this made many Jews in the crowd squirm. They hated the Romans, but Roman coins were in common usage. Pious Jews would have hated handling the denarius because it blasphemously asserted that Tiberius was the son of the Divine Augustus, the Senate having proclaimed him a God. (Ironically Tiberius was personally uneasy with the idea of being a God and the Senate did not proclaim his divinity after his death.)
One can imagine the anticipation with which the crowd awaited what was about to happen. Christ had said almost nothing about the Roman occupation, as if it did not exist, or was simply too inconsequential for Him to notice. Now He was being forced to take a stand on the central political issue of Jewish life.
Jesus inquires whose face is on the coin. No doubt his interlocutor thought He was playing for time: “Caesar.”
The words that Christ then spoke are obscured by our familiarity with them. Israel had no tradition of separating religion from secular rule. The rulers of Israel were judged as good or bad depending upon whether they had adhered to the worship of Yahweh. The Kings of Israel and Judah had often been in severe conflict with prophets sent by God. The Maccabees were leaders of a religious revolt against the Seleucid Empire. Herod had been condemned for his many atrocities and impieties. The Jews longed for a Messiah to free them from the rule of Rome and bring about a Jewish utopia where God would rule His people.
Thus when Christ told the crowd to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar and unto God the things that are God, he presented them with the stunning idea that there was a sphere of life which was a secular ruler’s, outside of the sphere of existence that was God’s. We have been working out the implications of this divine revolutionary idea ever since.