Then the Pharisees went and plotted and to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’
But Jesus, aware of their malice, said ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’
They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’
Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’
When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
I think it’s important to give the Pharisees credit — they do a great job of maintaining their malice in the midst of how amazed they are. It’s as if they can’t decide whether to love Jesus or hate him. He is brilliantly annoying, offensively wise and infuriatingly insightful. He is also impossible to nail down because he refuses to play their games and doesn’t live within the limits of their worldview.
Here in Matthew 22, the Pharisees are once again sure that they have a question that will catch him out:
‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?’
On the Israelite side, they have come as witnesses to his answer. If he says ‘Yes’, they can spread word amongst the people that he sanctions Rome’s oppressive tax regime as well as making accusations about his involvement in what many considered to be idolatry. The money of Caesar bore the image of Caesar who considered himself a deity. Coins, it could be argued, were idols and their lovers, idolaters.
On the Empire’s side, they have enlisted the Herodians. If he said ‘No’, then he would please the people but infuriate the Jewish ruling class whose status and power were maintained by keeping themselves in Rome’s good books. The Herodians would cry foul and their cries would be heard all the way up the ravenous and insecure food chain by rulers who were ready to pounce on any potential revolutionary.
'Come on, Jesus! Tell us! Yes or No?! Name yourself as impotent idolater, imperial appeaser or doomed revolutionary!
They believe that they have forced him to choose between dooming himself to martyrdom or resigning himself to insignificance. Either way, they smugly believe that they have rendered him powerless …
You have to feel for the Pharisees. You really do. Things never go the way that they hope they will. They are like Wile E. Coyote who spends his life dodging backfiring booby traps and missiles while trying not to look down at the ground that keeps disappearing from beneath him.
Their mistake is so often our mistake. They gave Jesus what they believed to be a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question. They believed they could bind God in the binary, unaware that such boxes can never contain him. God always ventures beyond right and wrong, beyond yes or no and beyond this or that to deeper truths that open our eyes to what we have been blind to.
Jesus’ answer is, as always, earth-shatteringly brilliant:
Show me a coin. Whose head is this? Whose mark is on it?
It’s Caesar’s face, Jesus.
Then it is Caesar’s coin. Give it back to him.
But in the same way that Caesar’s face is on this coin, God’s image is within you. Give to Caesar’s what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.
Instead of trying to trap God or bend him to our will, our calling is to return to him what is his.