Some Pharisees and some Herodians tried to trap him in what he said. They came and said to him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?’ But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.’ And they brought one. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were utterly amazed at him.
Because Judea and Samaria were troublesome areas the Romans imposed direct rule on them - and as part of the programme, this census tax. This was the cause of deep anger and resentment among the people. Judas the Gaulonite, for example, had proclaimed that taxation was a form of slavery, and he called for violent resistance. His rhetoric influenced many, and taxation was a burning question.
The question they asked Jesus was a trap, concealed under a layer of flattery. If he said it was right to pay the tax, he would incur the anger of the people; and if he said it was not right, he would be reported to the Romans as a revolutionary. There seemed to be no way out of the dilemma.
In the ancient world, coinage was considered the property of the ruler, since it had his image on it. Jesus asked them to show him a coin. This was clever, because by possessing a Roman coin they were already showing themselves to be collaborators with the Romans. This was a sore point, especially for Pharisees. He only had to say, “Give back to Caesar this worthless thing that belongs to him in any case.” Then he added, “Give back to God what belongs to God,” as if to say, “You were made in God's image: you have his image stamped on you, just as this coin has Caesar’s image stamped on it. You don’t owe your souls to Caesar.”
This principle has served societies well, when it has been observed. This saying, “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,” was of great importance to the early Christians, because they were often accused of disloyalty to the state; see, for example, Acts 17:7: “These people...have broken every one of Caesar’s edicts.” Paul wrote an exhortation to loyalty to the state (Rom 13:1-7). Clearly there is a tradition of civil loyalty that goes back to Jesus himself.
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