|Lakeview Baptist Church||
|Lakeview Baptist Church||
All throughout the Gospels we see examples of the Pharisees trying to get Jesus out of the way. Jesus came preaching a message that was radically different from the message the Pharisees were trying to get people to buy into. When Jesus started surging in popularity, it was a huge threat to the Pharisees. As more and more people started following Jesus, less and less people were following the Pharisees- all of a sudden they were losing their grip on the religious power they had enjoyed before Jesus came along.
So they tried whatever they could to get people to turn on Jesus. They tried trapping Jesus into saying things that would alienate people and push them away from his teaching. They even tried eliminating him altogether.
One of those times is recorded in Matthew 22. This is the passage we get the phrase “Render until Caesar that which belongs to Caeser.”
The passage seems pretty simple and straightforward, but I think there’s a deeper spiritual meaning that you may not have ever thought about. And you should.
The trap the Pharisees used in their failed attempt to trip him up and put a dent in his popularity was this: they asked him a question on taxes. Matthew 22:15-17 says:
"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?”
Their question seems innocent enough on the surface. How would that even trip him up?
A key thing to understand is the people the Pharisees sent: their own disciples and the Herodians. We are fairly familiar with the Pharisees- they were basically the holier-than-thou religious group that prided themselves in being the best and most religious Jews. The Herodians, on the other hand, were a group of Jews with more of a political persuasion. They were generally in favor of Roman rulers, and more specifically, the Herods (we see Jesus questioned by Herod in Luke 23 before being crucified). This support for the Roman rulers gave the Herodians some political influence in the Jewish community.
Essentially, the group going to question Jesus was made up of both Jewish religious leaders and Jewish political leaders.
The question they asked, “is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” was a bit of a loaded question, and therein lies the trap. You see, the Jews were ruled by the Roman empire, along with much of the civilized world at the time. They were not big fans of being ruled by the Roman empire. Now, the specific tax referred to in the passage was a tax imposed on subjects of the Roman empire- those people who had been conquered by the Romans. Roman citizens themselves were not obligated to pay this particular tax, and to pay it with Roman currency. The tax was extremely unpopular, as many saw the tax as a sign of enslavement to the Roman Empire. Just imagine if the United States were to be conquered by a foreign country. I know I would be less than enthused about paying a tax that basically proclaimed my country had been conquered. So it was with the Jews. There was also the fact that God had promised Abram that his descendants- the Jews- would be their own nation, God’s people. God told His people that they were to be holy and set apart, so the idea of paying a tax showing they were ruled by the Roman Empire rather than themselves and that they were included in the Roman Empire rather than being set apart as a nation was not popular among them at all.
The trap was set. If Jesus claimed that it was indeed lawful to pay the tax to Caesar, it would be extremely unpopular with the Israelites. Compounding the issue was the fact that more and more Jews were starting to believe Jesus was the Messiah that was prophets foretold. They were right, of course, but they had a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Messiah was going to do. They believed the Messiah was going to establish his kingdom on earth. They thought the Messiah was going to be a conqueror and would finally establish Israel as a sovereign nation. Supporting payment of a sort of “slavery tax” would not be something they’d expect from the Messiah. If he did say the tax was lawful, at best people would stop believing he was the Messiah, and at worse they might have gotten mad enough that they would try to kill him.
On the other hand, if Jesus sided with the notion that was popular among Jews at the time and said it was not lawful to pay the tax, the Herodians would no doubt take this information to Herod saying that Jesus was trying to lead an uprising against the Empire. This would also land Jesus in a load of trouble- he’d likely be arrested.
Either way, the Pharisees thought they had Jesus cornered. But it was Jesus’ answer that left them stunned, and it is Jesus’ answer that has tremendous implications for our lives today.
Jesus’ answer was profound.
“… 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.” – Matthew 22:19-2
Jesus didn’t exactly give them a straight answer to their question and in so doing did not give either group what they were looking for. What he did give them, though, was a clear challenge. “Whose likeness and whose inscription is on this coin?” was what he came right out and said, but the implications of what he left unsaid was profound, and here’s why: let’s go back to Genesis:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”
– Genesis 1:26 ESV
And now, let’s go on to Jeremiah:
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord : I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
– Jeremiah 31:33 ESV
Whose likeness is on the coin? And whose inscription is on it? So give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar.
And here’s the implied message, the one that recalls Scripture the Pharisees had been studying all their lives. In other words, the Pharisees likely picked up on Jesus’s implied message.
Whose likeness is on us? Whose inscription is written on our hearts?
“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
This is the message Jesus gave to the Pharisees. And this is the message he gives to us today.
So, I’m not sure Jesus was trying to extol the virtues of paying taxes, the meaning many Christians are oft to ascribe to his words. When the focus is on paying taxes, we make the same mistakes the Pharisees made. We display a fundamental misunderstanding of what God is looking for from us.
Jesus didn’t die on the cross in an attempt to get us to pay taxes. He didn’t leave the glory and majesty of heaven so that he could make the Jews into a sovereign nation.
When it comes down to it, Jesus died on the cross to redeem that which was his, those who bear his image and have his inscription written on them: his people. That’s what it’s all about.
So, yes, render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.
And render unto God that which belongs to God.
Disclaimer: Paying your taxes is biblical and you should still do it- I’m just not so sure that’s what Jesus was trying to communicate with this particular passage.