The Pharisees were at it again, plotting to get Jesus tangled up in His own words. They were looking for what Sarah Palin called a “gotcha”. Get Jesus to say something that could be used against him. A sound byte. Slip of the tongue. Get Him to take sides in a debate. And what better debate subject to trap Jesus than taxes. Everyone has an opinion about taxes. It’s a perfect snare. A lose/lose situation. Get Jesus to go political over taxes and the whole movement will be over in a heartbeat. You can almost see them rubbing their pharisaical hands together in delight as they send their flunkies to Jesus with their stumper of a question.
Just to spice things up, they send a few Herodians with them. Now the likelihood of a Pharisee being seen in the same GPS coordinates as a Herodian was somewhere between slim to none. The Pharisees hated the Herodians and the feeling was entirely mutual. Herodians were political supporters of King Herod. Some of them even thought Herod was the messiah. The Herodians were allied with the Sadducees who controlled the priesthood and the temple, and the Sadducees and Pharisees got along about as well as liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. But when it comes to Jesus, they could agree on this: He’s got to go.
“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.” Yeah, righ. When someone approaches you like that, you just wait for the next shoe to drop. A little diplomatic weasel talk to throw Jesus off His guard and then comes the question: Tell us what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or isn’t it?
It’s a perfect lose/lose. If Jesus says, “No, it isn’t lawful to pay taxes to the Roman government,” the Herodians and Roman loyalists will have their “gotcha” and label Jesus as a radical, an insurrectionist, and a scoundral, and turn Him in to the government. If He says, “Yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to Ceasar,” He will be in dutch with the religious right wing who held Caesar, tax collectors, and taxes in the highest form of contempt and the crowds will thin noticably. So on the one hand, He offends the political types, on the other hand, He offends the religious types. A perfect snare.
The world still plays this game with Jesus today, you know. If it can’t co-opt Jesus to whatever cause is fashionable, it will try to paint Jesus into a political corner. How would Jesus vote? Is He a Democrat or a Republican? Oh, the fun never ends when you mix religion and politics and shake it around a bit. The whole point is to polarize and marginalize Jesus, to move Him conveniently out of the way so you won’t have to deal with Him on His terms with His call to the kingdom and His bloody cross and forgiveness. It’s so much easier to argue over taxes than it is to deal with repentance, isn’t it?
Now the thing about Jesus is when you try to corner Him, you’ll wind up being the one who’s cornered. “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?” (Now name calling isn’t nice, but Jesus isn’t always “nice,” especially when people come flattering Him to trap Him in a “gotcha.”) Why the big act? You’re not interested in taxes, and you know it. Show me the coin for the tax. You do have a coin, don’t you?” I imagine they’re all looking at each other to see who has a coin. Since the Pharisees considered Roman coin to be unclean, it was probably one of the Herodian who pulled a denarius from his pocket. “Who’s picture and inscription are on it?” “Caesar’s,” they said.
Ah, so now you have your answer. The coin belongs to Caesar. His image and likeness is stamped on it. So is His name. And if he wants his denarius, then give it to him. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars.” That’s Jesus’ answer. Not quite what they were looking for, but that’s His answer. Is it lawful? Sure it is. Caesar is God’s minister, as the apostle Paul would point out. He’s the servant of God’s left hand to punish wickedness and reward good. So pay taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due. Give honor to whom honor is due, and respect to whom respect is due. Simple enough.
You say, “But Caesar wasn’t godly. He isn’t even a believer.” Well neither was Cyrus, the Persian king about whom Isaiah was speaking. Yet God calls Cyrus “my anointed one,” my messiah. Go figure. Cyrus the pagan Persian king is God’s “anointed one.” God is even holding his right hand and opening doors for him. Why? It’s all for the sake of God’s Anointed One, Jesus the Messiah, the Christ. So God uses a pagan Persian to return His people to the land so that in fulness of time His anointed Son could be born in Bethlehem of Judea to save the world. God literally has the whole world in His hands, and He really doesn’t care who Caesar is. He can use any Caesar we throw at Him. Remember that on November 4th.
Just as the Pharisees and Herodians are pulling away and scratching their heads over Jesus’ cryptic answer, Jesus adds a little more. There’s always a little more with Jesus, which is why it’s dangerous to ask Him trick questions. He’ll turn the tables on you every time. They come to Him with a trick question about taxes, and He adds something they weren’t asking for. God. “Oh, and by the way, before you boys run off to fill out your 1040’s, don’t forget to ender to God the things that are God’s.” They’re worried about taxes, Jesus is concerned about God. Taxes are easy, the God part is hard. We know what Caesar wants, but what about God. What does it mean: Render to God the things that are Gods?
He wants you. Not your denarius, you. You bear His image and likeness, or at least we once did, when Adam was first formed from the mud and Eve made from his side. They bore God’s image and likeness perfectly. They belonged to Him, and He laid His claim on them. God wants your undivided heart and soul and mind and strength. He wants your uncompromised fear, love, and trust in Him above all things. He wants your fear and your faith, the very things the Pharisees and Herodians were withholding. They were so occupied with the religion of commandment keeping and the politics of power they had no thought for the things that are God’s, namely, His mercy, His forgiveness, His promises, His life. Now it was Jesus’ turn to say, “Gotcha!”
He nails them, and us too. We think we can get in good with God by doing good, keeping commandments, doing the “lawful” thing. But the real issue behind all the questions is what does God want from us? What He wants is that we love Him with our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbors as ourselves. And He requires that we do it perfectly and flawlessly, down to the least little stroke of the pen and the last beat of the heart, down to our attitude and motive and intentions.
When you take it down to that level, you begin to realize that while we may be able to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, we are neither able nor even willing to render to God what is God’s. Not, that is, apart from Jesus. He is the image of God in human flesh, the second Adam, new humanity. He came into our flesh to render to God what was God’s, namely our humanity, and to restore the image of God to our flesh. He rendered to God the things that are God’s. He did it “not with gold or silver,” not with the coin of Caesar, but with His holy and precious blood, and with His innocent suffering and death at the hands of the Pharisees and the Herodians and the Roman government all of whom served as God’s instrument to reclaim a fallen cosmos from sin, entropy, and death.
The cross appeared to be the ultimate “gotcha,” Jesus caught between Religion that declared Him to be a blasphemer and heretic, and Politics that called Him a traitor to the state. The devil and world looked at Jesus on the cross and said, “Gotcha!’ They had Him nailed. But not even death and the grave could hold Him, this perfect image of God in Man. Nothing can hold HIm, for He holds all things.
God’s put His image and inscription on you in your Baptism. He’s restored His image and likeness. You belong to God. In this world, you render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. But you don’t belong to Caesar. You belong to God, thanks to Christ – joined to Him in HIs death, covered with His righteousness, living under the umbrella of His grace, walking in the freedom of His forgiveness. What the Pharisees and Herodians said to Jesus in mock sincerity turns out to be true in ways they never imagined: He is true and He teaches the way of God truthfully. He is the Truth and the Way. And through His death and resurrection, God says to you: Gotcha!p
In the name of Jesus,