After the Lord Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a young donkey, he went into the temple and drove out all who were buying and selling there. In other words, he cleansed the temple from those who had turned God’s house of prayer into a den of thieves. And the blind and lame came to him to be healed. And the children praised God because of him. But the chief priests and the teachers of the law were indignant. They were angry because of the things he was doing and because of the children’s praise. And later they came to him to question him: By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you the authority to behave in this way?
And after the Lord told the parable of the two sons — one of whom was disobedient to his father — and after the Lord told the parable of the wicked tenants — who beat and killed the landowner’s servants before killing the landowner’s son — the chief priests and the Pharisees realised that he was talking about them. The Lord was implying that they were like the disobedient son and they were like the wicked tenants. And so, they began to look for a way to arrest the Lord Jesus. They wanted to get rid of him.
And so, today’s passage begins with the Pharisees going out and laying plans to trap the Lord Jesus in his words. They wanted to work out a way to get the Lord to say something which they could use against him. They wanted to get him to say something incriminating so that they could arrest him. So, they wanted to lay a trap. They wanted to trip him up and snare him. Even though everything the Lord said and did made clear that he had come from God, they were not willing to listen to him. Instead they wanted to get rid of him.
Verses 16 and 17
However, instead of coming themselves, they sent their disciples. Do you see that in verse 16? This is the only place where their disciples are mentioned, but presumably these were followers of the Pharisees who were willing to do whatever the Pharisees wanted they to do. And perhaps the Pharisees believed that the Lord Jesus might be less guarded around their disciples than he would be around them. And if he was less guarded, then he might be more likely to say something he should not say.
And the disciples of the Pharisees came to the Lord Jesus along with the Herodians. We don’t know much about this group, but presumably they were supporters of King Herod, who had been appointed by Rome to rule the nation on Rome’s behalf.
So, these two groups approached the Lord Jesus and they began by buttering him up with flattery. They call him ‘Teacher’ and say that they know he’s a man of integrity who teaches the way of God in accordance with the truth. More literally, they say he is truth and he teaches God’s way in truth. And they add that he’s not swayed by men and does not pay attention to who they are. So, he’s not a people-pleaser. He doesn’t adjust his message to please his audience. He’s only interested in teaching the truth and won’t be influenced by what others may think of him.
All of this is true, of course. The Lord Jesus is true and the message he proclaimed is true and he’s not a people-pleaser. All of what they said is true. However, they presumably don’t believe that this is the case. If they believed these things about him, then they would be willing to listen to him and they wouldn’t be trying to trap him. And so, they’re only buttering him up with flattery.
And now comes their question: ‘Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Casear or not?’ They’re referring to a kind of poll tax which every non-Roman man and woman living in the Roman Empire was required to pay every year. Many Jews objected to paying it, because everyone had to pay the same amount regardless of their income. People didn’t like that. And the money went to support the Roman government. And people didn’t like that, because the Roman Emperor was a pagan. And the amount to be paid was a denarius. And people didn’t like the denarius, because it bore the image of the Emperor and referred to him as the son of the divine Augustus. And that was blasphemy, because there is only one divine being and it’s the Lord, not Augustus. And so, this tax was unpopular and controversial. In fact, someone called Judas the Galilean led a revolt against the tax in AD6.
And one writer (Watkin) suggests their question is similar to the question, ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’ Whether you answer yes or no to that question, you incriminate yourself. If you say yes, then you’re admitting you used to beat your wife. If you say no, then you’re admitting that you’re still beating her. And if the Lord answered yes to their question — yes, it’s right to pay the tax — then he could be accused of siding with the Romans against his own people. Someone could claim that he was on the side of the pagans instead of being on the side of God’s people. But if the Lord answered no to their question — no, it’s not right to pay the tax — then he could be accused of being a trouble-maker and an enemy of the Romans. So, if he says yes, then he’s a compromiser. If he says no, then he’s a revolutionary. Either answer will get him into trouble — either with his own people or else with the Romans. So, the trap is set. They’re just waiting for him to step into it.
Verses 18 to 20
But look at verse 18 where Matthew tells us that the Lord knew their evil intent. So, they hadn’t caught him off guard. He hadn’t been taken in by their flattery. He was fully aware of what they were trying to do; and he was fully aware of their evil intent.
The word ‘evil’ recalls how the Lord described the Israelites in Deuteronomy 1. He described those people who died in the wilderness in the days of Moses as an evil generation. And the people who belonged to that evil generation used to put the Lord to the test. So, in the past an evil generation of people tested the Lord. And here now is another evil generation of people who have come to test the Lord, because the Lord’s question in verse 18 can be translated: ‘You hypocrites, why put me to the test?’ Why are you testing me when you should be trusting me?
And he asks them to show him a denarius, which was the coin used for the tax. And when they brought him one, he asked them whose portrait is on it. Whose image is on the coin? And, of course, it’s the image of Caesar. Just as we have coins with the image of the queen and now we’ll have coins with the image of the king, so they had coins with the image of the Emperor. And as well as the Emperor’s image, there was an inscription, naming the Emperor.
And since the Emperor’s image and inscription are on the coin, then it — in a sense — belongs to him. And so, the Lord answered them by saying that they should give to Caesar (the Emperor) what belongs to Caesar. In fact, what he said is that they should give back or pay back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. And that’s perhaps significant, because they asked him if they should give the coin to Caesar; and the Lord replied that they should give back the coin to Caesar. The coin in a sense belonged to Caesar and it should be returned to him.
However, they should also give back to God what belongs to God. And what belongs to God? Everything belongs to God. ‘The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.’ That’s what we sing in Psalm 24. Everything belongs to God, because he made it. And we belong to God, because he made us. And every good thing we enjoy in this life has come to us from God our Father.
And therefore the Lord is teaching us that we’re to give back to God everything that we owe. That’s not to say we’re to sell everthing we own and give the proceeds to the church. The Lord does not forbid private property. But there’s nothing which we own and which we can point to and say that it’s mine and God has nothing to do with it. Instead of doing that, we’re to use what God has given us for his glory. And everything we have — including our skills and abilities as well as whatever we own — is to be used in a way that glorifies him. In our mind’s eye, we’re to see a little plaque on our life and on everything we own which says, ‘Dedicated to the glory of God’.
And so, when we’re at work or at home, we’ll use our knowledge and our skills and our energy and time in a way that honours God by carrying out our duties diligently and cheerfully. Most of us own a computer or phone. And so, when we’re sending messages using one of these devices, we’ll not send nasty messages, but messages that are good and kind and true. Most of us own a car. And so, when we’re driving, we’ll drive in a way that honours the Lord. And as part of our service to the Lord, we’ll use our money to pay our taxes, because this is God’s will for his people. Even though the Caesar was a pagan, the Lord Jesus told the people in his day to give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. So, give him whatever taxes you owe him, even though he’s a pagan who does not believe. And as Paul says in Romans 11, everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities. for there is no authority except that which God has established. And this is therefore why you pay taxes, says Paul. You pay them, because the authorities are God’s servants. Whether they know it or not, they are God’s servants, appointed by God to rule over us. And so, we should give what we owe them.
And we should give, not reluctantly, but gladly, because giving our taxes is one of the ways we honour the Lord. Paying our taxes is not something which is unconnected to the Lord. It’s not unrelated to him, but it’s very much related to him and connected to him, because paying our taxes is part of our Christian service. We give to Casear because Christ our King commands us to give to him.
And do you see how the Lord side-stepped their trap? If he answered yes to their question — yes, it’s right to pay the tax — then he could be accused of siding with the Romans against his own people. But if the Lord answered no to their question — no, it’s not right to pay the tax — then he could be accused of being a trouble-maker and an enemy of the Romans. So, if he says yes, then he’s a compromiser. If he says no, then he’s a revolutionary.
But he’s neither a compromiser nor a revolutionary. He’s not a revolutionary, because he’s telling us to support the government by paying our taxes. And so, we’re not to be revolutionaries. We’re not to oppose the government. We’re not to resist it. We’re to submit to it.
But the Lord was not a compromiser, because he’s telling us that our first loyalty is not to Caesar, but it’s to the Lord. The reason I’ve to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar is because the Lord my God has commanded it. And if Caesar ever commands me to do something which God forbids, then I will obey God rather than Caesar. And that means we’re not to compromise with the world around us. Instead we’re to remain faithful and loyal servants to the Lord our God and to Jesus Christ our King.