Luke 20: 19-26
And so they watched and waited sending [their] spies who were to pretend to be genuine so that they could catch him out if by one word [he might slip up] to hand him over to the leadership, to those in [civil] authority. And [in this way] they questioned him:
“Teacher, we know you teach [according to] what is [orthodox] received, and you do not regard a person’s social standing, insisting upon truthfully teaching God’s way. So, tell us, is it lawful for us to give tribute [pay taxes] to Caesar or not?”
And perceiving [face to face] their play-acting, he answered them in this way:
“Show me a denarius. Of whom has it an image; what does the superscription tell you?”
And they said:
“It is of Caesar!”
And he then said to them: “Well then, hand back to Caesar the things of Caesar and to God the things of God.”
And so, they were just unable to catch him out with [even] one statement in the presence of the people who were marvelling at the answer he gave and [all] were silent.
The scribes and the Chief Priests in their opposition to Jesus found themselves in a tight place. Things were rather precarious for them. They had the Roman authorities to think about and they also had to conjure with the crowds, particularly those visiting the temple, that they sought to control. They dared not make their move to arrest Jesus because they were well aware of how he had caught the attention of many people; his teaching had commanded their attention. And that was further reason why
… they were in fear of the people.
So how were they to orchestrate a confrontation? How could they challenge the crowd’s attentiveness to Jesus’ teaching. That, Luke tells us, is the problem that occupied these religious leaders once he began teaching within the temple precincts.
In the aftermath of his clearing out the traders from the court where the Gentiles were invited to come and consider Israel’s Lord, Jesus’ had already raised the question of John’s ministry. That proclamation of God’s kingdom included advice to tax-collectors, and Zacchaeus had begun to put that into effect after the Jesus’ visit to Jericho, just before his arrival in Jerusalem.
So here was a public issue that had an important connection to the people of the land and they were wondering whether they might gain some advantage by a further airing of the issue. Could a discussion about taxation play to their advantage? Could they stir the pot on taxation and land Jesus in trouble with the occupying authorities?
Luke tells us that they did not themselves come forward but sent mealy-mouthed “spies”, feigning pious intent, with over-egged compliments. To us it reads as throughly over-done. I guess these “spies” thought they were being pretty smart, and we have already heard from Luke just how deep the opposition went, and how determined they were to get him. Luke tells us that Jesus saw through them straight away, and turned their attention to how the public order they endured, their buying and their selling, was all related to the provision of legal tender – they dealt in coins and with coins their taxes would be paid:
Bring me a coin, one you use in daily life, show it to me!
They can only comply, even if some ultra-pious member of the crowd said to himself:
How did that get in here?
But the question stood.
Whose likeness is this? Whose image is it? What says the words engraved on the coin?
Of course the Commandments had proscribed the making of a graven image. But then the superscription on the coin would also say something which any believer in Israel’s God would have to baulk at. The image was enough perhaps but quite likely, it read:
Tiberius Caesar Augustus; son of the divine Augustus.
Luke doesn’t record if anyone read it out. A silent reading of the idolatrous superscription is still dealing with idolatry. And this is the temple no less!
Jesus draws attention to this “state of affairs”, these “things” in Jerusalem’s “sacred space”, their temple for worship and sacrifice.
Well, we can observe that he was only doing so in answer to a question raised by those questioning him. He saw their trickiness. And his well-known answer reminds those listening of what they are doing everyday, whether paying taxes or buying and selling. His answer,
Therefore give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give back to God what is God’s.
is the definitive declaration that all things, including public governance and taxation are to be laid before the God of Israel who has made known his demands for justice.
This answer distinguishes respect for the civil authority, even if in Caesar’s case he errs mightily by ascribing divinity to himself, from the complete devotion called for from the One who made, judges and redeems, the Lord who demands the service of our entire life.
With this answer Jesus affirmed that Caesar is indeed subject to the God of Israel and that it is out of His great mercy for the world that this is indeed Good News. It can be proclaimed in all of life and not only within the temple’s precincts where the Chief Priests and scribes have stewardship over how this worship is to be encouraged. This Good News to Caesar flies in the face of the denarius proclamation that Caesar should be worshipped because it announces the nonsense that he is on the path to divinity, just like his father Augustus.
Jesus announced a principle the Chief Priests and scribes would never dare to put on their lips. They were so busy with preserving their own place under the sun – which they implicitly viewed as Caesar’s rule – that would not know how to defend themselves.
In saying so, Jesus not only completely overthrows Caesar’s claim to total earthly allegiance or god-head, but deftly reminds the crowd, and these furtive religious leaders, that the reign of the Saviour of Israel is over all that he has made, from Jerusalem to Rome, from sea to sea, to the ends of the earth.
If the Chief Priests and the scribes thought that by their trickiness Jesus could be forced to play to the crowd, and thus (as we might say) score points by skating on thin ice, they were completely mistaken.
All were amazed; all were silent.
Later on, it seems, Luke suggests that the crowd was much more amenable to their manipulations as “they” clamoured for Jesus’ execution with the release of Barabbas (compare 20:16 and 23:19-25). But in the meantime Jesus’ teaching commanded respect.Were the scribes and Chief Priests serious? Did they really want to be given an answer to their question? Did they really want to hear that God was demanding their obedience even as they paid their taxes?