13 Then they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Him in order to trap Him in a statement. 14 They came and said to Him, “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to pay a poll-tax to Caesar, or not? 15 “Shall we pay or shall we not pay?” But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, “Why are you testing Me? Bring Me a denarius to look at.” 16 They brought one. And He said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” And they said to Him, “Caesar’s.” 17 And Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were amazed at Him.
This might not seem like an “amazing” statement by Jesus. Maybe you have read this story before and know what it says as well as the lesson it is designed to teach. We need to put ourselves, however, in the shoes of Jesus’ audience to capture the awe of His statement. Maybe if we were in pre-revolutionary America we could appreciate His point better. The Jews were overly taxed and abused by Rome. Rome imposed many taxes upon the people, which they thought to be unfair. To make matters worse, there were Jews who took up employment for the government of Rome to help them collect these taxes. Even more troubling was that the tax collectors often were dishonest in that they would pocket some of the taxes by charging more than required by the government or just pocketing some of the proceeds and claiming that some had not paid taxes. The issue of government taxes was huge in these days because the system was oppressive, corrupt, and turned the Jewish people against each other. We can imagine the people hesitating to pay taxes as even if they supported the Roman government, they felt as though it might not go where they were told it would go and just further feed the corrupt the system.
The Pharisees “knew” that Jesus was going to say something against the government. Yes, they were conspiring to trap Him but if he started discussing the politics of taxes and gave an answer favorable to the people (as in, you shouldn’t pay taxes), then for them it would be win-win. Either He would condemn Himself with His words and the Pharisees would be able to start their persecution of Him or He would incite a mob against tax paying and thus begin the path to becoming their political savior. What they continued to neglect, however, is that Jesus was wiser than their schemes.
Today we might have this same struggle. We may battle our inner desire to cheat on taxes or simply not pay them. We can understand the oppressed feeling that taxes create, especially if we do not agree with how the government uses our “hard earned money” (after all, it is how we became the United States of America, fighting against taxation without representation). I think any of us would be upset if we give our money to an entity and see it being used in a different way than we expected. Yet Jesus says here plainly that if our money is truly ours or truly the government’s or truly God’s then we should not hesitate to return it to its appropriate owner. Unfortunately, we think that the things we own are really ours. We “earned” what we possess by working somehow (even if that work is stealing or cheating). We cling to the things we have earned so tightly because we think they define us and reveal the faithfulness of our work. We tend to forget, however, that the truly holy things we own are not earned but given: the Holy Spirit, God’s grace, and abundant life in the Kingdom of God. These things are not earned, but gifted to us by our Heavenly Father as an inheritance. This is why in Colossians 3 Paul details what our attitudes should be as those in Christ:
23 Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve. 25 For he who does wrong will receive the consequences of the wrong which he has done, and that without partiality.
We have adapted the worldly focus of working to earn instead of working because we get to work. Paul is saying here that our salary is already paid, so why not work in thanksgiving for what Christ has done for us instead of working to earn or please men? Working to please men includes working so that they would give you a salary. Yes, in this world we need to “make a living” for shelter, clothes, and food, but even God says He will provide all of that just as long as we trust Him for it and seek first the Kingdom of God (I could go into a whole other side lesson, but just read Matthew 6:25-34). Our problem: we don’t trust Him for it; we trust our own ability to earn. As a missionary I’ve had to learn this lesson in the most profound of ways, relying on God to provide for my family through the generosity of others. This is how God provides! And through us, because of God’s movement through these various people and organizations, we too are able to help provide for others in need.
Sometimes we think that by cutting back on taxes we are doing good because that is more money we can give, whether to our families in the provision of food and shelter or to others in gifts. Jesus says this is wrong and it will catch up to us eventually; regardless of what we do with the money, by not fulfilling our duty to pay taxes we are being dishonest and God will not honor it and will not be happy with it. Not just because we are being dishonest, but also because we are not trusting Him to provide for us and others. Our focus turns to our own abilities to provide (ie we take on the job of God) instead of our Father in Heaven who creates and provides all we need. So, to better clarify what Jesus is saying, render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s such as money and physical things that are created for order and population management within the government and to God the things that are God’s such as our life, allegiance, and faith. The American Dollar beholds the infamous phrase “In God We Trust.” Think of that next time you hesitate to hand it over. Essentially, even though we have our doubts about giving it away, we are saying that we are choosing to trust in God more than money.