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)
Today we continue the scene in which the Pharisees try to trick Jesus into saying something that would bring about His own downfall. This is the first of three such scenes recorded by Matthew that took place just days before Jesus would be crucified.
The question of whether the Jews should pay taxes to Rome was a sensitive one as the Jews did not believe, despite being occupied by Rome, that they were Roman citizens. They believed they were citizens of God’s kingdom. The paying of taxes would have been an admission that Rome ruled over them.
If Jesus were to say that the Jews should pay taxes the people would have turned against Him. If He said that the people should not pay taxes the Romans would have turned against Him. Jesus seems to be in a no-win situation.
As usual, Jesus answers a question with a question. The coin for the tax (a denarius) had Caesar’s likeness and inscription on it. Jesus says that since (therefore) the coin belongs to Caesar then the Jews should render it to him. The word “render” in the Greek is αποδιδομι (pronounced: ap-od-eed’-o-mee) which means “to pay off a debt”. Since the Romans provided services to the Jews, the Romans were entitled to collect taxes to pay for those services.
But if Jesus had stopped there the Jews would have been angry with Him. So He also says they should render to God the things that are God’s – namely the people themselves.
Roman leaders considered themselves gods and often acted like it. For example, in 17 BC Augustus Caesar issued a decree absolving everyone in the Roman Empire from sin. Jesus is saying that the coin may belong to Caesar but the people belong to God.
With these words Jesus satisfied the Romans by declaring that taxes should be paid. He also satisfied the Jews by stating that they were in fact citizens of God’s kingdom. The paying of taxes didn’t negate this fact. Once again, He gives a perfect answer that no one can argue against.
Here we see God declaring that citizens are obligated to pay taxes to the government ruling over them, whether we agree with that government or not. To fail to pay taxes is to be disobedient to God.
But government leaders should be seen for what they are: servants of God [Romans 13:1, 5-7, 1 Peter 2:13-15]. They are not to be worshipped. They should be prayed for [1 Timothy 2:1-2]. They are lesser in authority than God and as such should never be obeyed at the expense of obeying God.
Obeying a man-made law that contradicts God’s law is a poor witness to the world. Doing so sends the message that God is wrong or that we know better than He does. That is never the case.
But obeying God’s laws even in the face of persecution (even by the government) for doing so is a strong witness to those around us to the holiness, righteousness, and love of God.
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