Give To God What Belongs To God
The Jewish political and religious authorities in Jerusalem were deliberate and provocative in their endeavours to discredit Jesus and His teachings. This attempted entrapment by a group of junior Pharisees and Herodians posing a preconceived politically astute question on the ethics of paying the annual poll tax to Caesar, followed soon after Jesus had driven the moneychangers from the temple precincts on His last trip to Jerusalem. Jesus’ reply has often been interpreted as distinguishing the dual authority of human government and God, instructing Christians to pay their taxes, but maintain their religious devotion for God. There are other Scriptural references that address the issue of compliance to the governing authorities and their tax matters (Rom 13:1-7; Titus 3:1; 1 Pet 2:17), but this incident does not represent it. This is about the clash of two kingdoms.
The frequent uprisings of Jewish zealots throughout the Roman occupation of the Holy Land signified a nationalistic theological undertone, which included the perception that paying the head tax to the occupiers was symbolically blasphemous and a betrayal to their God, as it recognized Caesar as king over Yahweh (Josephus JW 2.118). The Herodians were Roman political appointees and at the opposite end of the spectrum to the Pharisees, but on this occasion, they laid their differences aside and conspired to ensnare the Lord. Their rationale being: if Jesus supported the tax, it would reduce His influence among the commoners, benefiting the Pharisees, but to deny it would be treasonable and be an arrestable offence in the eyes of Rome and the Herodians. Jesus did not accede to answering their straightforward ‘yes or no’ question as His politics, being the eternal Judge, transcends their puny plot, as the Roman empire and the Jewish authorities so set against Him, will one day pass on. These are not what the ‘kingdom of God’ is about.
Although there were several versions of the denarius, the one that was brought to the Lord probably had the image of the emperor Tiberius and the inscription ‘Son of the Divine Augustus’ on one side, and the mother of the emperor on the reverse, with an engraving of Caesar as ‘the high priest’. This claim of divinity immediately contravened the 2nd commandment and went against Jewish faith and sensibilities. The irony of the denarius was intentionally juxtaposed between Jesus, the Son of God, the great High Priest, to the similarly spurious claims of Caesar. Jesus’ reply was to ‘render’ to Caesar (Greek: to give back what he deserves) not only his money but also everything that belonged to this pagan god! Rome’s ultimate goal in her conquests was the total allegiance of all her subjects to Caesar, which was especially prejudicial towards non-Roman citizens. The Jews were God’s chosen people, so they did not belong to Caesar, and must never give to Rome what she desired, but to ‘God what belongs to God.’ The Lord was being consistent in His radical message on the kingdom of God in standing up to the idolatrous Roman political system of self-righteous power, success, and patronism. The Israelites deserved to be released from their oppressive pagan ruler. The revolutionary nature of Jesus’ rebuttal did not go unnoticed, as the fabricated seditious accusation was again raised at His trial (Luke 23:2). However, He walked away unharmed from this ‘denarius confrontation’ with the Herodians because of His view on Jewish patriotism; but in reality, His kingdom’s government surpasses any earthly system.
A further lesson as epitomized by Jesus (in His inclusive embrace of all Jews, whether they were His enemies or otherwise), is that the gospel of the kingdom radicalizes those who truly embraces the Son, as the life of God’s Spirit humbles them and transforms their hearts as citizens of heaven, so that even their enemies are treated with respect and love, with equity and justice, as the kingdom of God becomes a reality in hearts and minds.