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.
(Matthew 22:15-22 ESV)
Yesterday we saw the Pharisees send their students to Jesus, with the Herodians acting as a witness to Jesus’ words, in order to get Jesus to say something for or against the Roman government which was occupying Israel at this time. The plan was to get either the Romans angry at Jesus or the Jewish people angry at Him, thereby leading to His downfall. But that plan backfired.
Notice the students of the Pharisees start off by flattering Jesus. They say things that are certainly true of Him, but which they really didn’t believe. They were just buttering Him up hoping to stroke His ego before they asked their question. Perhaps then His guard would be down and He would say something that would trip Him up.
The human mind is all too apt to fall for flattery. It was not the Philistine army that conquered Samson but the insincere love of a woman. King Hezekiah fell for the flattery of the Babylonian ambassadors and it cost him. Flattery can easily get us to make mistakes which is why we need to be watchful of it.
Rome levied many taxes on their conquered peoples. But the Jewish people greatly resented these taxes because they considered themselves to be citizens of God’s kingdom, not Rome’s. This is why the question of whether it is lawful (according to God’s law, not Roman law) to pay taxes to Caesar or not is actually a very good one. It seems that no matter how Jesus answers it He is going to get Himself in trouble.
If He says that the taxes should be paid then the Jewish people would turn on Him, giving their leaders the opportunity they had been looking for to arrest Him and put Him to death [Matthew 12:14, 21:46]. On the other hand, if Jesus says that the taxes should not be paid then the Romans would see Him as an insurrectionist and would arrest Him themselves. The Pharisees think they have Jesus right where they want Him.
Before answering, Jesus reveals that He knew all along that these people were putting Him to the test. He knew they were hypocrites who were flattering Him with words they didn’t believe. These men thought they were duping Jesus but they didn’t realize that Jesus was the omniscient God who knew exactly what they were trying to do. If you think about it, this scene is actually quite comical.
This scene also depicts man-made religion – trying to convince God that we’re something other than what we actually are. People think they’re good, but they’re not [Ecclesiastes 7:20; Matthew 7:21-23; Romans 3:10 et. al].
There are many who believe God doesn’t know what they do or think. Or they plan on talking their way out of their sin on judgment day and cajoling their way into heaven. Not gonna happen. God sees everything and will act with perfect justice [Colossians 3:25; Hebrews 4:13].
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