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 marvelled. And they left him and went away. (Matthew 22:15–22)
Living under Roman occupation was a mixed bag. There were some positives: you gained some protection from the presence of Roman soldiers; the Roman road network was famously good; and by and large the Romans let you carry on with your religious practices and speak your own language. If you lived in the Eastern half of the Roman Empire, then you didn’t speak Latin: you stayed with Greek.
So, living in Jerusalem two thousand years ago you would have heard the bustle of the Temple, and the snatches of conversations in Greek and Aramaic. You would still go to the same stalls, and buy the same goods. All would look Jewish, but then you would see the Roman barracks and the marching soldiers and you would be reminded that you were under occupation. Under the veneer of Judaism lay the Roman Empire, who appointed your king and your high priest.
And then there were taxes. Always taxes. On the one hand you didn’t mind the customs taxes too much. After all, they allowed you to trade widely and you probably made back more than you spent out. The poll tax, though. That was a different matter. Why would you want to simply send money into the coffers of your occupying force? That just rubbed you nose in the fact that you were not a free nation.
The Roman coinage itself was an irritation, too. First of all on each coin was the face of the Emperor, Roman authority stamped onto the very currency itself. Then was the fact that this face was, of course, a graven image. This was something which did not sit easily with the Ten Commandments, especially as written on the coin were the words: “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, Augustus”. Here is a graven image of one claiming to be the son of the “divine Augustus”. A son of a god.
Life in ancient Jerusalem was accompanied by an undercurrent of discontent, all suppressed by the fighting machine of Rome. Here was a perfect trap to spring on Jesus.
The Pharisees sent some of their own disciples to Jesus with a seemingly innocent question. First they butter him up: “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”. Oh how smooth the words, how flattering the sentences! They carry on: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not”.
Now there’s a question! If you say yes, then you alienate the Jews living under occupation. If you say no, then you risk the wrath of the Roman authorities. Here was the perfect trap, here finally was a way to silence this Jesus who had been causing you no end of anguish.
As the trap snaps, Jesus deftly steps to one side: “show me the coin for the tax”. Of they go, and Roman coin is brought to Jesus. He asks them: “whose likeness and inscription is this”. Easy: Caesar. The justly famous answer is then given “render [literally: give back] to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”. On hearing this “they marvelled. And they left him and went away”.
Not only is this a clever answer, but it is also a highly challenging one. The coin is Caesar’s because it bears his image, but what should we give back to God? What bears his image? Turn to Genesis 1:26-27 and you will find the answer:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness …” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:26–27)
What bears God’s image? You. What should be rendered to God? You. There’s the challenge! This is not a religion of Sunday morning, but living a whole life to the glory of God! This is living out your created nature in all that you do. This is a revolutionary way of looking at yourself, and looking at God. No wonder the disciples of the Pharisees slunk away! Jesus had given them a glorious glimpse of how life should be lived out by those who are created in God’s image. What is Caesar’s image in comparison with all that?!
Jesus’ teaching here is also instructive as it tells us that whilst we do owe something to the society around us, this should not stand in the way of what we owe to God. It is not controversial to say that our society is becoming more secular, and not doubt there will be times ahead where our consciences are pricked, and it is at these times we should remember that which we owe to God. To render to Caesar does not release us from the obligation to render to God. The task is to serve Caesar in a way which honours God yet the history of the church, splattered with the blood of the martyrs, often reminds us that Caesar does not take kindly to us having an even higher authority!
In Philippians, Paul tells his readers that “our citizenship is in heaven”. This image neatly captures the situation in which we find ourselves. We are living rather like ex-pats on the Algarve, citizens of heaven living in the midst of earth. We may walk the same streets and eat the same food, but ultimately our loyalty lies elsewhere. We read the literature of heaven, and gather together to worship the God of heaven and earth. We try to live as peaceably as we can, but there is always a difference in culture and understanding.
Rendering yourself to God means keeping the knowledge of God and obedience to God alive. It means being willing to say ‘no’ when Caesar demands too much.