The context of today’s Gospel story is that of Roman overlordship of Palestine; it was a Roman colony. The Jews of Jesus’ time hated this. The Romans levied a tax on Palestine, which was set at a higher level (for it always was a troublesome place), and which came in on top of an already high level of religiously based taxation. The Roman tax was a constant reminder of their being a subject people rather than being a free nation under God. In 164BC the leaders of the Maccabean Revolt, through their zeal for the Law of God, managed to throw off the Greek yoke of oppression, and which led to reclaim their national freedom. In Jesus’ time, freedom fighters and Jewish heroes were still widely admired. Jesus’ talk of the coming Kingdom of Heaven fed into this and won him much admiration, though it would have also fuelled feelings of dissatisfaction with Roman rule.
It is in this context that the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” was put to Jesus. (Matthew 22:17) ‘Law’ here means the Jewish Law or God’s Law, their religious Law. So the question was asking if paying tax to Caesar was morally permissible: was it right to pay it? Those who put this question to Jesus were ‘Pharisees and Herodians.’ (Matthew 22:16) These two groups hated each other. The Pharisees were religiously anti-Roman and had a real problem of conscience in paying tax to their Roman overlord. The Herodians were those who supported the Roman appointed puppet-rulers of the family of Herod the Great; essentially, they were Roman collaborators. But both hated Jesus even more: His teaching drew great crowds that in different ways threatened their own authority. That they came together (‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend!’) to put this question to Jesus would have been enough for Jesus to smell a rat. Their question was intended to put Jesus in a no-win situation (Matthew 22:15): If he said it was not permissible, he would be seen to be publicly inciting rebellion against Rome; if he said it was, he would damage his public support and his religious credibility by appearing to be pro-Roman. Together, they offered Jesus what they thought would be a poisoned-chalice.
Jesus said to them, “Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. (A denarius was a Roman coin that had the head of the emperor on one side and an inscription bearing his name and designation on the other.) Then Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar's.” So, Jesus said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” (Matthew 22:19-21)
Jesus’ answer was not just clever, but was in line with the established theology of his time. For, as our First Reading reminds us, the prophet Isaiah told of how God used the Persian King, Cyrus, to free the people of Israel from their Babylonian oppression. This, then, offers a biblical pattern of submission to a foreign ruler as an acceptance of God’s judgement, and of a restoration of the freedom God’s People based not on resistance to foreign rule but in God’s ability to direct even the hearts of the kings of nations. So, later, on this basis St Paul in his Letter to the Romans was able to teach: “Everyone is to obey the governing authority because there is no authority except from God and so whatever authorities exist have been appointed by God.” And much in line with Jesus’ teaching, he goes onto say: “This is why you should pay taxes, too, because the authorities are all serving God as his agents. … Pay to each one what is due to each: taxes to the one to whom tax is due, tolls to the one to whom tolls are due, respect to the one to whom respect is due, honour to the one to whom honour is due.” (Romans 13:1, 6-7) For Paul, as with Jesus, we are to give each one his due.
Jesus’ question, “Whose likeness/image and inscription is this?” was designed to evoke a reference to the fact, of which all Jews would have been aware, that humankind was created in the ‘image and likeness of God.’ (Genesis 1:26-27) Thus Jesus’ answer, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's,” enabled him to reassert God’s claim on the whole person of those who for now must pay taxes to Caesar. A coin bearing Caesar’s image may be his due, but our whole self, bearing the image of God, is God’s due. In some senses, paying taxes is the easy part, however distasteful. Giving God our absolute allegiance, without preconditions or limits, without hedging our bets, is a higher and harder calling that will take a whole lifetime to pay. Paying taxation, then, even to foreign ruler (c.f.: Matthew 17:24-27), Jesus places in the context of an even stronger and fiercer loyalty to God’s exclusive claim on all of us — which is what Jesus was asserting with his proclamation of the Kingdom of Heaven. (Matthew 4:17) What we do in Civil Life, must always be carried out within an overriding and overarching claim of God on all that we are. When they heard Jesus’ answer, we are told: ‘they marvelled/they were struck with admiration.’ (Matthew 22:22) How could they not be impressed, these ones who tried to flatter him by calling him, ‘Teacher,’ who tried ‘to trap him/tried ‘to entangle him in his own words.’ (Matthew 22:15) With his answer Jesus showed their cleverness to be as clueless as an ignorant schoolboy. ‘They left him and went away,’ we are told. (Matthew 22:22)
Jesus says to us, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16) Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and Herodians in today’s Gospel shows us how wise we need to be, if we are to avoid the pitfalls. For, on our missionary endeavours, there will be those who will actively try to ‘trap’ us, too.