The past Sundays we have seen Jesus attacking the religious leaders of his people, for their failure to recognize in him the Word of God, the power of God and the compassionate love of God. All they could see was a man, who broke their laws; a man who freely mixes with the tax collectors and sinners ate and drank with them. The so called despised accepted him as the Messiah, who would fulfill their hopes and aspirations.
The Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians were the three prominent Jewish sects of Jesus’ day. The Pharisees were rabid nationalists and totally anti-Roman, while the Herodians were willing to collaborate with the Romans, hoping to benefit from them. Together with the chief priests, these three groups accused Jesus of “associating” with sinners and challenged his authority to teach in the Temple. The three “parables of judgment” were Jesus’ calculated reply to their accusations. After the first two parables, “the chief priests and the Pharisees … realized that he was speaking about them” (21:45-46). Hence, they resumed their counter-attack in an attempt to destroy Jesus’ influence with the people, either by discrediting him in the presence of the crowds or by causing him to make statements that would get him into trouble with the Romans.
The Jews were forced to pay three types of tax to the Roman Emperor: the ground tax, the income tax and the census tax. Here, the question concerned the census tax. A census tax implied that, if one were a citizen, one owed the money to the Emperor. The Jews believed that they had only one Lord and Ruler and that was their God. Taxes, or any form of submission, should be made to Yahweh alone. Hence, the question, which the Pharisees asked Jesus, was intended to create a very real dilemma for him. If he said that it was unlawful to pay the tax, the Herodians and their allies would report him to the Roman officials, who would then arrest him as a revolutionary. If he said that it was lawful to pay the tax, the insurgents and their supporters would turn against him and he would be discredited in the eyes of the people who were against paying taxes to a pagan emperor. In other words, to state that tax should be paid would have made Jesus appear a traitor to his country, while a denial would have left him behind the bars as an enemy of Rome.
We see the opening statement is clever and flattering, because they praise the utter honesty and integrity of Jesus. All of which was perfectly true. Jesus, in fact, is being praised as endowed with God’s own sense of truth and justice, totally impartial, with perhaps a bias for the poor, the weak and powerless.
The strength and power of Jesus is speaking the truth without fear or favor and that is what they hoped to entrap him. Jesus defeated their scheme by asking his challengers to show him “the coin of tribute” – the coin they would give to the tax-gatherer. In those days, all secular money was thought to belong to the Emperor. Thus, the Emperor’s image was on each secular coin. The money belonged to him and he simply permitted people to use it. By actually having a Roman coin in their possession, complete with Caesar’s image and Caesar’s inscription, the challengers had already shown where their loyalties lay. They had, in effect, answered their own question. Jesus, rather than answering their question directly, asked them a question, thus turning their trap inside out and upside down: “Whose image and inscription are these?” “Caesar’s,” they said. Jesus then said, “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar — and to God what belongs to God.” In other words, we give to the Emperor the coin because his image is on it, and we give to God our own selves because we are created in the image of God (Gn 1:26). Jesus’ answer acknowledges our obligation as citizens to the state, but affirms our larger obligation to God. Both the state and God require certain loyalties from us, but we owe God our very lives.
When Minister Joe Wright was asked to open the new session of the Kansas Senate, everyone was expecting the usual generalities, but this is what they heard:
“Heavenly Father, we come before you today to ask your forgiveness and to seek your direction and guidance. We know your Word says, “Woe to those who call evil good”, but that is exactly what we have done.
We have lost our spiritual equilibrium and reversed our values.
We have exploited the poor and called it the lottery.
We have rewarded laziness and called it welfare.
We have killed our unborn and called it choice.
We have shot abortionists and called it justifiable.
We have neglected to discipline our children and called it building self-esteem. We have abused power and called it politics.
We have coveted our neighbor’s possessions and called it ambition.
We have polluted the air with profanity and pornography and called it freedom of expression.
We have ridiculed the time-honored values of our forefathers and called it enlightenment.
Search us, O God, and know our hearts today; cleanse us from every sin and set us free. Amen!”