Luke 20:20 – 26
So they watched him and sent spies who pretended to be honest, in order to trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor. So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you are right in what you say and teach, and you show deference to no one, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But he perceived their craftiness and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose head and whose title does it bear?” They said, “The emperor’s.” He said to them, “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were not able in the presence of the people to trap him by what he said; and being amazed by his answer, they became silent.
The scribes and chief priests had realized that Jesus had bettered them with the parable we read yesterday, about God’s vineyard. Everyone knew the references! But they were afraid to attack him openly for fear of the people, and so they went away – but only to plot and scheme.
In today’s story they send spies to attempt to trap him. They have come up with a question they are certain will anger either the people or the Romans – they think they are putting him between a rock and a hard place. It is an appropriate question for us to consider on April 16, the day after tax day. They begin with flattery – isn’t that typical of the deceivers? And then they ask their trap question, “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Rome burdened those they governed with oppressive taxes – someone had to pay for the armies that occupied Israel! There were those, the Zealots, who objected to paying taxes to Rome on religious grounds, saying it was wrong to pay tribute. It would be the Zealots who would eventually lead Israel to her ruin by their uprising against Rome, but in Jesus’ day they were still working in secret – one of their number had been killed for making such a protest and leading a small group against Rome – but now, in 30 AD, they were lying low, waiting for their chance. The priests and scribes knew that if Jesus said, “don’t pay the taxes”, Rome’s response would be swift and brutal! But if he said pay, he would anger the people, who were groaning under Rome’s yoke.
But Jesus, once again, does not fall into their trap! He asks for a coin, a denarius, and one of his questioners pulls one out. Now remember, Jesus is in the temple – to carry a graven image, which a Roman coin with the emperor’s image was considered to be, into the temple was idolatry. The questioner, by producing the coin, has already trapped himself. But Jesus goes on, “Whose image is on the coin?” They answer, “The emperor’s”. Jesus says, “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.”
The trap failed, they are amazed at his answer, and remain silent. But they are not done, not at all.