13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax[b] to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”
But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
And they were amazed at him.
Church and State/Sacred and Secular/God and Caesar
At a first read through, this passage could be seen as a reinforcing of the separation of church and state. We have our ‘Caesar’ oriented tax-paying lives and we have our God oriented tithe-paying lives. However, that approach reads back into the text a view that only really has been popular since the 18th century. As we read this, we should see that there are not two worlds, secular and spiritual, but Jesus understood that there was one world but that Caesar was an administrator. The Jewish understanding of how a public administrator should rule was reflected in their Jewish word for a king. When Saul was appointed king of Israel in 1 Samuel, the word used for him is one for a princely administrator. David was the better king because he reported to God and answered to God for what he did.
Caesar, at this time, had minted coins for the taxes which he demanded back as payment. The coins had claims to deity on them, and they had an idol on the reverse side of them. Jesus asks for one of these coins. Jesus exposes his questioners’ hypocrisy when he shows that they were carrying the coins. When they produce the coins, Jesus tells them to give those coins back to Caesar. In this way Jesus appears to say that the people should pay the tax. He is also saying that corrupt coins should be returned to a corrupt leader whose government is needed, but whose way of administrating it is blasphemous. In this way he can not be accused by the authorities or by the religiously devout.
So, how does this apply to us? We operate in a corrupt world. I live in Illinois, which is both corrupt and broke. However, if you choose to live in Illinois you have to abide the taxes. You live in a corrupt state, but the state is under God. Whilst we rightly give the state our taxes, our greater allegiance is to God. Images of past leaders of government are on the dollar bills, but we look beyond the government to ‘in God we trust’. The image of the King of Kings is minted in our hearts and our souls and our strength. We must pay back to God what is cast in his image. That is our very selves – all of who we are. Whilst the government mints more money to pay off its debts (and create more chaos), we can be calm at its mismanagement of God’s resources because we give to God what is God’s. The state does not administer resources and educate children and provide health care that is its own, it has responsibility to govern resources that are God’s. As far as we can submit to it, even with its corruption, we do. There will be a day, though, when we will live in a divine dictatorship and Jesus will be the government. Then the perceived separation of the secular and the sacred will disappear.
Jesus, we pay to corrupted and mismanaged government what we must so that they will take out the trash and educate children. We need to have systems to take care of the poor and the sick and so such systems are necessary. Whilst we give our financial resources to the government and the church in order to take care of our neighbour, help us to remember that the money the mint and the resources they manage are made from your bounty. Help us to ultimately turn to you for justice, for provision, and for direction.
At this time I particularly lift up Egypt. It looked to government to save it from its ills and the government has shown that it is not the source of salvation. It reflects the corruption in people’s hearts. I pray for the Islamic Brotherhood. I do not trust them and I think they are creating martyrs to generate sympathy for a dangerous cause. I also do not trust the army to manage people in ways that are just. I pray that a movement for peace and reconciliation would come from your children in Egypt, even as their churches are marked by red paint and destroyed by the Brotherhood. I have heard that the Christians’ homes too are being marked. I pray that the red paint would be passed over on the doors of the faithful in Egypt and that justice would be seen in the lives of the perpetrators. When they cease their violence, let there be unconditional love and reconciliation. let mercy triumph over judgement.
- How do the Jewish leaders flatter Jesus?
- What is the motive for their question?
- How does Jesus’ response satisfy revolutionaries and those loyal to Caesar?
- How do people use this passage to justify two worlds: the public/political/secular world and the private/religious/sacred world?
- How does one give to caesar what is Caesar and God what is God’s today?