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 22:20-22 (ESV)]
The Pharisees and Herodians set out to trap Jesus into saying something that would offend either the people or Rome. By prefacing their question with flattery about His impartiality and integrity, they pressured Him into giving an answer to their politically charged question—was it right to pay taxes to Caesar. The tax about which they were asking was the tributum capitis, a sort of head tax that had to be paid by every male over fourteen and every female over twelve. Already heavily taxed by Rome, this tax was especially hated by the Judeans because they saw it as a symbol of their servitude and submission to their foreign rulers.
Jesus’ questioners were sure they’d backed Him into a corner where He’d offend people regardless of His answer. If He said to pay taxes to Caesar, He would be denying God’s sovereign reign over Israel, supporting the hated Roman rulers, and alienating his fellow Jews. On the other hand, if He said not to pay taxes, Jesus would offend Rome and lay himself open to a charge of treason. Requesting to see a denarius, Jesus exposed his questioners’ hypocrisy when they had one. No truly devout Jew would carry a Roman coin with its idolatrous portrait of Tiberius Caesar and inscription that called him the “son of the divine Augustus.” Instead of falling into their trap, Jesus then employed a typical rabbinical technique by answering their question with one of his own. He asked whose picture was on the coin. They had to admit it was the emperor’s. Since, in the ancient world, an image on an object indicated ownership, it clearly belonged to Caesar. “Therefore,” said Jesus, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Caught in their own trap, they didn’t yet understand that we can’t outsmart God!
On the surface, Jesus’ answer points out the obligations of dual citizenship—that obligations to both government and God must be fulfilled. Like Jesus’ questioners, we have a dual citizenship and, as citizens of both the Kingdom of God and our nation, we must fulfill our obligations to both. We are to render to whatever Caesar is in power that which is his without turning from our obligations to God. Hidden in Jesus’ answer, however, is the idea that Caesar is only entitled to what is his; he cannot claim what belongs to God! In both Jewish and Christian theology, however, God has dominion and authority over everything. In short, all things belong to God!
Nevertheless, when loyalty to government is not incompatible with loyalty to God, it appears that support of the state is part of being obedient to the Lord. Like it or not, today is tax day and, unless you filed for an extension, today is the last day to do your rendering unto Washington!