See, we’re not much different from the Jewish community of Jesus’ time or for that matter most other communities since the grand idea of taxation popped into a ruler’s head. While we may understand the concept behind the idea of taxes and may even agree that taxes serve the common good, we still chafe at the thought and apply an extra sharp pencil at tax time.
The Jews, and in particular, the Pharisees, did not like paying the tax to Caesar, Tiberius. The Jews disliked having a foreign ruler whose troops occupied their homeland. The tax reminded them of their yoke of subjugation and was viewed as an infringement on the Divine Right of God over His chosen people.
The tax was to be paid by every person from the age of puberty to 65 years and payable in Roman coin, the Denarius, which was valued at about a day’s wages for a laborer. This second part of the tax requirement was the part the Pharisees mostly objected. The Denarius, a silver coin minted under official Roman control, bore the image and inscription of Tiberius, whose image they found blasphemous and therefore, unacceptable.
But we have here a second group confronting Jesus together with the Pharisees, the Herodians. Both trying to trap him into committing an act of treason. This other group were followers of the puppet king Herod, whom the Romans placed over the people.
The Romans, when occupying a foreign land, liked to place local rulers in charge, so they had someone on the scene, like Herod, who knew the people; to better keep peace and, most importantly, collect the taxes to due Rome. The Romans had a neat trick for ensuring they received the proper amount of money due to them. The local ruler paid the tax upfront to Rome; leaving, in this case Herod, to recoup his payout from the local tax collection. So, you have the Herodians who liked the tax because they had a vested interest in its collection to keep their king in power.
The Pharisees and Herodians were strange bed-fellows, united together in the common cause of removing Jesus who threatened their way of life. The Pharisees stood to lose their religious prestige and power over the people and the Herodians saw their tax collecting in jeopardy due to Jesus’ powerful preaching and healing of the people. A wrong answer by Jesus could cause the people to rebel; ending their way of life.
Together, they plan a trap for Jesus by asking him, “Is it lawful or not to pay the census tax to Caesar?” This was the equivalent of asking: Have you stopped cheating on your taxes? Either answer causes Jesus a problem.
As the story tells us, Jesus knew their evil intention and avoided directly answering their question. He asked them to show him the tax coin, which only a Herodian would be able to produce, then taking the coin, told them to, “. . . render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar and to God that which belongs to God.”
Jesus’ answer is not an endorsement of the tax or the right of rulers to levy taxes, as many people believe. Jesus does not specify what belongs to Caesar. But for the last several weeks we have heard in the Gospel message of what belongs to God.
No ruler has legitimate authority unless God allows it. All that Caesar had comes from God. Even in the death and destruction wrought his Caesar’s name upon other civilizations came about due to God’s plan, His Divine purpose.
It is God’s endorsement and approval rulers need to seek. Their power and authority to rule over God’s people, using God’s gifts come from God, not from themselves. They need to be reminded that they, as we all, are stewards of God’s creation and His gifts of all resources meant for all people – for all generations – until the end of time. God’s gifts are not for our own earthly ends.
In Isaiah, the king Cyrus ruled and conquered only as the anointed of God. Cyrus’ temporal authority, though he knew God not, was given him for God’s purpose, not man’s. We are His holy people, He is our God. He alone is the Lord, there is no other. ~Amen