Give to Caesar...
I’ve often pondered the significance of the coin Jesus asks the Pharisees to produce in this passage:
Keeping a close watch on him, they send spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor. So the spies questioned him: ‘Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’
He saw through their duplicity and said to them, ‘Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?’
‘Caesar’s,’ they replied.
He said to them, ‘Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’
They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent.Luke 20.20-26 (NIV)
There is so much irony in the first paragraph here: the spies try to flatter Jesus by saying the opposite of what they believe to be the truth, thereby lying (in the Temple), and revealing themselves to be the duplicitous ones, not Jesus.
Then there is the phrase ‘the power and authority of the governor’ – he is the one whose authority they respected and feared, not God’s. While couching everything in the language of religion and theology, they actually acted politically: this is a political challenge, not a theological one (nowhere in the Law does it forbid Jews from paying taxes).
However, what the Law does forbid, is idolatry.
Where does this conversation take place? In the Temple: ‘Every day [Jesus] was teaching at the temple’ (Luke 19.47).
What is on a denarius? An image of Caesar – not in itself a problem, images and pictures are not banned by the Law, but only images of God. What is a problem however, is the inscription on the coin, which contains these words: ‘Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus’ (see here).
It is the words, not the image, which is the issue. Jesus does not draw attention to the fact, but having a Roman denarius inside the Jewish temple, a coin which proclaims the (false) divinity of the Roman emperor, is idolatrous.
Jesus gives an answer which at once diffuses the political problem, and reveals their religious hypocrisy: even in God’s Temple, they are more concerned with (the) power and authority (of the Roman governor – 20.20) than with worshipping God.
No wonder they were astonished and decided to keep their mouths shut (20.26).
Apart from demonstrating Jesus’ spiritual discernment and intelligence, what is the point of this passage for us, today?
First, it highlights how we can be blind to the truth, how we can end up serving powers and authorities other than God without even realising it. I have no doubt that the Pharisees on many levels had convinced themselves they were serving God – while completely hardening their hearts to the real work of God, before their very eyes.
It is so easy for people to convince ourselves we are right, so that we stop listening to God and others (gently) challenging us. We need to learn to listen, every day. That’s not the same thing as constantly questioning ourselves, but more like keeping a heart that’s open to God.
Second, Jesus makes it abundantly clear that Caesar is not God – and that while he is important, the more important question is whether or not we ‘give back to God what is God’s’ (20.25). Living in the UK today, political power no longer claims to be divine, or to have absolute authority – so the modern caesars are perhaps more subtle. They are more usually ourselves, our desires, money, relationships, sex. Those things should never command our ultimate loyalty – that belongs first to God.
Third, Jesus immediately sees through their deception. There is simply no point trying to pull the wool over his eyes when we pray. He knows it already, and he still loves us anyway. When we try to hide things from God, it is usually because we are ashamed, and we don’t want to risk God ‘finding us out’ and then kicking us out.
But that won’t happen: ‘while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5.8). He died for us, knowing what we are like, and he won’t turn away from us now, as if suddenly realising how awful we are.
Therefore let us all give back to God what is God’s: all we have, and all we are.