Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26
“Well then,” he said, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” – Luke 20:25 NLT
In just a few days from now, all American citizens who receive wages in compensation for work done, will be required to file their income tax with the federal government. It will be tax day in the good old U.S.A. There will be those who put it off, others who have filed months ago, and those who refuse to file at all. Some of us will owe more and a happy few will get refunds, having lent our money to the federal government, interest free, for the last twelve months. But it's probably safe to say that none of us actually enjoy filing our taxes. We see it as a necessary evil and a burdensome obligation. We do it because we have to. It's required by law and that law carries some pretty stiff penalties for those who choose to ignore it.
Taxes were no different in Jesus' day. In fact, they were worse. The Romans levied heavy taxes on the Jews. On top of that, the Jewish tax collectors added their own exorbitant fees. And then there was the Temple tax that every Jew had to pay, which in actuality, was used to support the lavish lifestyles of the priests themselves. These men lived in luxury while the average Jew barely made ends meet. In his book, "The Message and the Kingdom," Richard Horsley writes, “…impressive archeological remains of their Jerusalem residences show how elegant their life style had become. In spacious structures unhesitantly dubbed ‘mansions” by the archeologists who uncovered them in the 1970’s, we can get a glimpse of a lavish life in mosaic floored reception rooms and dining rooms with elaborate painted and carved stucco wall decorations and with a wealth of fine tableware, glassware, carved stone table tops, and other interior furnishings and elegant peristyles.” This staggering combination of tax obligations were overwhelming to the Jewish people, making everyday life practically unbearable and the very mention of taxes intolerable. Palestine was a veritable powder keg waiting to ignite and, according to Jewish historian, Josephus, the refusal of the Romans to lessen the tax burdens would result in the Jewish War and the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
By now we know that the Jewish religious leadership were looking for any and all opportunities to trick and trap Jesus in order that they might have Him arrested and eliminated. They were certain that it was just a matter of time before He said something that got Him into trouble with the people or with the Roman authorities. If they could get Him to say something the people would disagree with, He would lose His popularity and His growing following. If they could trick Him into saying something that could be taken as divisive or potentially anti-Roman, then they could enlist the aid of the government in getting rid of Him. So they send some "spies pretending to honest men" (Luke 20:20 NLT). In other words, they didn't come dressed as priests, Pharisees, or religious leaders. They disguised themselves as average Jews, hoping to blend in with the crowd and catch Jesus off-guard and unprepared. Their question was well-planned and had a clear motivation behind it. "They tried to get Jesus to say something that could be reported to the Roman governor so he would arrest Jesus" (Luke 20:20 NLT). After attempting to butter Him up with false flattery, they ask their question: "Now tell us – is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" (Luke 20:22 NLT). But Luke makes it clear that Jesus saw through their ruse and He knew they were trying to trick Him. So He asked for a Roman coin. This coin would have had Caesar's image on it, which Jesus got them to acknowledge. Then He told them, "give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God" (Luke 20:25 NLT). The simple interpretation of this passage would be to say that Jesus is simply encouraging civil obedience. The people of God must be good citizens. They must set a good example, even if the government is corrupt and oppressive. But I think Jesus has an even more important point to His statement. It is interesting that He points out the fact that the Roman coin carried the image of Caesar, the Roman emperor who was also considered a god by his own people. Jesus tells them to give this coin to Caesar. It is stamped with his image and so belongs to him. But Jesus also stated that they were to give to God what belongs to God. What is stamped with God's image? Back in the book of Genesis, we read, "So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:27 NLT). Every good Jew would have known this story and would have understood what Jesus was saying. Men and women are made in the image of God. They are stamped with His image. Therefore, they belong to Him. Jesus seems to be saying, that instead of worrying about the temporal things of this world, like money and taxes, the people needed to give themselves to God and His Kingdom. All the way back in His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had said, “So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need” (Matthew 6:31-33 NLT).
Not only were those in Jesus' audience that day made in the image of God, but as Jews, they had been chosen by God as His special people. They had been handpicked by God and then redeemed out of slavery in Egypt. They were His people, His prized possession. He had told them, “For you are a holy people, who belong to the LORD your God. Of all the people on earth, the LORD your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure” (Deuteronomy 7:6 NLT). These people had been oppressed and burdened before, and God had rescued them. They were being oppressed and burdened now, but it had far less to do with taxes than it did with sin. God wanted to rescue and redeem them from slavery to sin and death, which is why He had sent His Son. But their minds were elsewhere. They saw their burdens as earthly, not spiritual. They wanted a Messiah to rescue them from taxes and the tyranny of the Romans. But Jesus had come to rescue them from a life enslaved to sin and a sentence of death.
Jesus wanted these people to give to God what was rightfully His – their lives. He wanted them to turn over their lives to the very one who could save them. Jesus stood before them as the very Son of God and their Messiah. He was the answer to their problem, but they failed to recognize Him. Jesus had not come to foment insurrection, but to provide salvation. He had not come to lead a revolt against Rome, but to provide restoration with God. His was a spiritual revolution, not an earthly one. And He was subtly reminding His listeners that God, in whose image they were made, required what was due Him. And just as Caesar would punish any and all who refused to pay his mandatory tax, God would punish any and all who refused to give Him what belonged to Him. God had warned the people what failure to obey Him would result in. “Understand, therefore, that the Lord your God is indeed God. He is the faithful God who keeps his covenant for a thousand generations and lavishes his unfailing love on those who love him and obey his commands. But he does not hesitate to punish and destroy those who reject him” (Deuteronomy 7:9-10 NLT). As believers, we have a spiritual obligation to God. He has made us and He has redeemed through the precious, priceless blood of His own Son. Our lives are not our own. We belong to Him because He has paid for us at a great price. He has redeemed us from slavery to sin and made us His own. We are stamped with His image and so we should "give to God what belongs to God" – our very lives.
Father, how easy it is to get consumed with the things of this world. We live surrounded by material things and it seems as if that is all that matters at times. But we are spiritual creatures who are eternal in nature, not temporal. We have been created in Your image and therefore, we belong to You. On top of that, we have been bought with the blood of Your Son and we are rightfully Yours. All You ask in return is that we give to You what rightfully belongs to You – our lives. Help me continue to learn each day what that means and how that looks. I want to give to You what belongs to You. Amen.