Matthew 22:15-22 (NIV)
Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
The Pharisees were always looking for ways to trap Jesus with his own words. They tried to get him to say something contrary to how they interpreted God’s word. Satan tried to use God’s word to trap Jesus as well. Matthew chapter four chronicles his attempt. With each quote of the Scripture to try to change Jesus’ course, Jesus quoted Scripture to provide the correct context or understanding. A good reminder that Scripture is always the best commentary on itself.
In the text above the Pharisees and the Herodians wanted to get Jesus to reject paying taxes. Thinking Jesus was susceptible to vanity their disciples started the conversation with an attempt to “force” the answer they wanted. “We know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are.”
The Pharisees had no love for Rome and saw themselves as the rightful guardians of the Torah. The Herodians were loyal to Herod and therefore loyal to Rome. The Pharisees wanted Jesus to side with Rome so they could make the case that Jesus was no friend of God. The Herodians wanted to see Jesus reject paying taxes so they could bring accusation against him for defying Rome.
Both “parties” wanted to see the end of Jesus. Both saw Jesus as a threat to their priorities and position; hate creates strange bedfellows. However Jesus, God with us, could always answer with clarity and power. First, he called them out, “you hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?” Jesus’ response informed those trying to set the trap that their ruse was obvious. He would not take the bait. Jesus would answer in truth and wisdom.
When asked if it was right to pay taxes to Caesar, Jesus asked for a Roman coin. The denarius was stamped with an image of the Caesar and inscribed as a tribute to the ruler who saw himself as divine. It was an image the Jews, especially the Pharisees, hated. The denarius was never accepted as payment of temple taxes.
Pointing to the coin Jesus asked, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” The answer was obvious, “Caesar’s.“ With that response Jesus made a critical point, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” Jesus’ answer rendered the trap useless. In the big picture, taxes and money were only tools. For all the evil and wrongs perpetuated by Rome, they also made some contributions. The highway structure made travel easier. Roman soldiers assured safety against highway robbers. The coinage was minted by Rome. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.
But that was not the main point. The main point was giving to God that which is God’s. A student of the Law would certainly have be drawn to Leviticus 25 and the Year of Jubileee. The Israelites were told that on the Year of Jubilee all property reverted to the “original” owner. God wanted the remind Israel that, “the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants” (Leviticus 25:23 ). Yes, Caesar had his moment, but in the grand scheme of things, it all belongs to God.