The emergence of a common enemy is often the catalyst for sworn enemies to unite. In first century Palestine, Pharisees and Herodians have no great love or respect for each other, but when both groups are faced with a perceived threat to their authority, they unite in opposition to Jesus. They try to set a trap for him.
In attempting to set him up, they ironically pay Jesus the greatest of tributes: addressing him as ‘teacher’, they acknowledge his sincerity; they admit that he teaches the way of God in accordance with the truth; they witness to his lack of concern with status and hierarchical division. The portrait they paint is in stark contrast with their own hypocrisy.
Their question is intended to put him in a ‘no win’ position: ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?’ As usual, Jesus turns the question back on his interrogators. He lets them know that he is aware of their malicious intentions and asks them to produce the coin used for the tax. The Roman denarius that they produce bears the bust of the Roman emperor and the Latin inscription, ‘Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, High Priest’.
Jesus’ comment, ‘Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God’, can be interpreted in several ways. Every Jew knows that everything belongs to God, the earth and all its riches. The disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians are all Jews, even if the sympathies of the latter lean towards the Roman occupiers.
Is Jesus telling them to pay the tax while at the same time recognising God’s prior claim? Is he telling them not to pay the tax precisely because the emperor has no claim on what belongs to God? Is he critiquing or legitimising the Roman occupation? Or is he saying something else? They are left to interpret his response as they wish.
One thing is clear: Jesus’ words have nothing to do with the modern distinction between church and secular state. There are many good reasons for paying taxes in a secular state and for contributing financially to the life of the church. It is quite anachronistic, however, to invoke this text in support of doing so. This story is more about sincerity and truth in our relationships with each other and with the God of all truth.