In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit
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. Just to spice things up, they send a few Herodians with them.
The likelihood of a Pharisee being seen with a Herodian was rare. The Pharisees hated the Herodians and vice versa. 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. Butter Him up in order to throw Jesus off His guard. Then comes the question: Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?
It’s a perfect lose/lose situation. If Jesus says, “No, it isn’t lawful to pay taxes to the Roman government,” then the Herodians and Roman loyalists will have their “gotcha” and label Jesus as a radical, an insurrectionist, and a scoundrel, and hand Him over to the government. If He says, “Yes, it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar,” then He’s with the religious right wing who held Caesar, tax collectors, and taxes in the highest form of contempt. So on the one hand Jesus offends the political types, and on the other hand, He offends the religious types. A perfect snare.
The world still plays this game with Jesus. If it can’t get Jesus on board to whatever cause is fashionable, then it will try to paint Jesus into a political corner. How would Jesus vote? Is He a Democrat or a Republican? Maybe a Libertarian, a Tea Party type, a Blue Dog, a Socialist, or even an Independent? 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.
When you try to corner Jesus, you’ll wind up being the one who’s cornered. Why put Me to the test, you hypocrites? (Name-calling isn’t nice, but Jesus isn’t always “nice,” especially when people come flattering Him to trap Him in a “gotcha.”) Show me the coin for the tax. Since the Pharisees considered Roman coinage unclean, it was probably one of the Herodians who pulled a denarius from his pocket. Whose likeness and inscription is this? They said, Caesar’s.
There’s 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. Jesus’ answer is render to Caesar the things that are Caesars. Not quite what they were looking for, but that’s His answer. Is it lawful? Yes, as the apostle Paul says in Romans chapter 13: whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Pay taxes to whom taxes are due and revenue to whom revenue is due. Give honor to whom honor is due, and respect to whom respect is due.
Just as the Pharisees and Herodians are pulling away and scratching their heads over Jesus’ cryptic answer, Jesus adds a little more. Render 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 God’s?
God wants you, not your denarius. 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, soul, 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. 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, at least not 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 put His image and inscription on you in your Baptism. He has 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. You are joined to Him in His death, covered with His righteousness, living under the umbrella of His grace, walking in the freedom of His forgiveness. As today’s Epistle proclaims: Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, Who will transform our lowly body to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him even to subject all things to Himself.
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!”
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit