So they just keep coming at him. Now they’re even sending spies, and this time they think they’ve got him. Throughout this entire Gospel Jesus has been advocating for those who are victims both of Rome’s oppression and the religious elite’s corruption. So these spies come to ask him if it is “lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” This is a tricky question because if Jesus says “no”, he’s in trouble with Rome. According to Rome it is lawful. It is absolutely lawful and you darn well better do it.
But of course these spies are not referring to Roman law. They’re referring to Jewish law, and by Jewish law, this tax is abhorrent. But if Jesus’ followers, who are being oppressed and exploited by Rome, hear him say “yes, it is lawful”, Jesus will lose credibility with his followers. So if Jesus says “no it is not lawful”, he is now liable to Rome and can be arrested. But if he says “yes, it is lawful”, he will lose credibility with his followers and then the religious authorities can do with him whatever they want. They think they’ve got him.
Well, if Jesus operated in the ways of the world, then, yes, they would. But Jesus is ushering in a whole new way of being and thinking in this world. He is not operating out of the precepts and understanding of any form of a kingdom of this world. He’s operating purely out of an understanding of the Kingdom of God. And so he says,
“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.” (20:24-25)
There’s a lot going on here, and it’s all brilliant, but I think chief among them is this: Jesus reveals the distinction between the things of God and the things of this world. The Emperor’s (Caesar’s) image is on the coin. It’s his. So what do we care about where it goes? You, beloved of God, bear the image of God, so you belong to God. Give Caesar his money. But give yourself to God.
What Jesus does here is he doesn’t teach that one shouldn’t pay the tax (so he’s okay by Roman law), but he does so in a way that still endears him to his followers by putting Caesar in his proper place (so he’s okay with his followers). Stinking brilliant. Caesar demanded to be lauded as God. So for Jesus to make this distinction between what is God’s and what is Caesars, it not only to say “what do we care what Caesar does”, but it also says, “Caesar isn’t God”.
This is important in the plot of Luke’s Gospel, but these are actually crucial words for us today as well. As we dwell in a volatile political climate, and as anxiety increases over the welfare of our nation, we must ask if we have Caesar in his/her proper place. Is Caesar getting that which belongs to God? Is too much of our energy, work, and hope for this world placed in the hands of Caesar?
He slips the trap for now. But how will Caesar respond when he hears of this? Not only has Jesus offended and exposed the religious authorities, now he has offended and exposed the political authorities as well.