13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”
But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.”16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
And they were amazed at him.
In the world, there are two coexisting forces; Caesar’s kingdom and G-d’s kingdom. It is often said they “compete” for loyalty; but to say that G-d’s kingdom competes in the same since of the world compromises its beauty. Nevertheless, the message is clear: If you belong to G-d then She has control over your life. If you belong to Caesar than he has control over your life. This is the central message of Jesus’ “kingdom of G-d.”
Now, if the enemies of Jesus had the mind to trap Jesus then it would appear there were stories circulating that Jesus was telling people not to pay taxes. They could then “accuse” Jesus. As Jesus usually does, he avoids the trap by making an ironical reply. He asks for a coin and then asks the questioners, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” It is obviously a Roman coin. And so, they own up to the evidence; the coin belongs to Caesar.
In the day Jesus lived, an owner’s marking was indicative of who the owner is; much like cattle ranching in the 19th century. The mark is the only way in which ownership could be recognized. Everyone in the Roman system had their own mark. Therefore, the head of Caesar on this coin is more than a decoration or a mark of honor. It signifies that all money in the empire belongs to Caesar. Therefore, those who held the coins were precarious owners. One could never really “own” the money. When a certain Caesar died, the money changed, because it belonged to that particular Caesar. Caesar was the sole proprietor. Jesus then has a very simple comment in regards to this: “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” You find his likeness on the coin! The coin, then, belongs to Caesar. Give it back when he demands it.
However, let us notice that, with this answer, Jesus does not recognize that taxes are lawful; nor does he give the advice of submission to the governmental authorities and their tax laws. He simply faces up to the evidence. What belongs to Caesar? Jesus makes this very plain: Whatever bears his mark! With this, Jesus points out the utter ridiculousness of Caesar’s “power.” Because (indeed!) where is the mark of Caesar? On coins, on public monuments, and on certain altars. That is all. Jesus’ answer is rendering that to Caesar. Because, quite frankly, he could confiscate it if he wanted to– without asking! Therefore, to Jesus, paying or not paying taxes is not even a basic question; it is not even a true political question. It is irrelevant, because Caesar is going to flex his muscles whenever he sees fit. Give him what bears his image when he throws his roid-rage fits that lust for power.
However, let us explore the other side of this. Whatever does not bear Caesar’s image does not belong to him. It all belongs to G-d. Caesar has no right to the rest.
In the Jewish tradition from which Jesus spoke, all life is created, given, and taken by G-d. Life cannot possibly belong to another human person; because life does not bear a human mark but the mark of the Divine. Life is sacred because it is from G-d.
Therefore, Caesar has no right to life or death. Caesar has no right to plunge people into war. He has no right to ruin and devastate countries in the name of the empire, the economy, the ruling class, or defending the empire. To Jesus, Caesar’s power is very limited– merely to a set of metal that would eventually deteriorate into nostalgia and utter meaninglessness.
Therefore, (and most of all) may you remember that Caesar (and the empire) have no right to you! Remember that all life belongs to G-d. You owe nothing to Caesar but owe everything to G-d. And so, our only task is to discern what we owe to G-d in worship of Her grace that calls us to a place that no longer worships empire; to a place that does not recognize the mark of empire as a mark of authority. Caesar has no jurisdiction over you at any time; only the free G-d.
I call you to live in G-d’s freedom today and seek what it may look like for you and your community.