Happy Labor Day everyone!
13 Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. 14And they came and said to him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? 15Should we pay them, or should we not?’ But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.’ 16And they brought one. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ 17Jesus said to them, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were utterly amazed at him.
Again the chief priests, scribes, and elders send a group to test Jesus, to try to catch him in something that would get him arrested by Rome or would anger the people. This time they send in Pharisees, who are downright rigid about the Mosaic Law, and Herodians, who are loyal to Rome. They begin with flattery – it is almost sickening, they lay it on so thick! As if Jesus would not see what they are doing! And then they spring the question – is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor? Rome exacted a tax, as a way of controlling the conquered populations, reminding them that Rome is in control, as well as a way of raising money to pay for the occupying army. That tax was very unpopular, to say the least, among the people!
But Jesus does not fall for the trap – he turns it. If you recall, when Jesus turned over the tables of the money-changers in the temple, the reason there were money changers was that Roman coins, with their images of Caesar, were considered idolatry, and could not be used in the temple. It would, in fact, have been inappropriate to even carry these idols in one’s purse (men did not have pockets then, they carried purses tied to their belts); and yet, when Jesus asks for a denarius – about a day’s wage for a worker – his questioners quickly produce it. And Jesus looks at the coin, and asks, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” Oops! Too late they realize their mistake, “The emperor’s” they answer.
Now Jesus draws a conclusion – in the rhetorical style of the time (Jesus was skilled in rhetorical tactics, as we see here). There are premises that would be assumed and known by the audience – these include a premise that whatever bears the image of someone belongs to that one, that premise then leads to the conclusion that the denarius belongs to the emperor. The unspoken premise is that human beings bear the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27); therefore, we owe much more to God – we owe him our selves. Give to God that which is God’s.
Jesus reminded them and us of obligations – to pay Caesar what is due to Rome, or, as citizens, to pay our taxes, and to give to God our much greater debt, to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.