The next controversy is political and is a clever attempt to get Jesus into trouble either with Rome or with the Jews. The background is the "poll tax," which symbolized the Jewish subjugation to Rome, a sensitive social issue. Nationalist Jews questioned whether the poll tax should be paid, since it went directly to Rome. On one reading of the leaders' test of Jesus, they were really asking Jesus whether he was loyal to Rome or to God's nation, Israel.
The question's setting is clearly hostile. Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be honest. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor. The entire effort is hypocritical. Appearing to ask a sincere question, they are really trying to set a trap. To add to the hypocrisy, they flatter Jesus, saying that he does not show partiality and teaches God's way truly. If they really feel this way, why have they not become followers of Jesus? Such shallow flattery is similar to the arguments of those who say Jesus is a great teacher but ignore his claims to unique authority.
Nonetheless, the question is whether the tax should be paid. Jesus pursues the answer, even though he is aware of their duplicity (the Greek term panourgia really refers to trickery [Bauernfeind 1967:726]). His answer will frustrate and expose their hypocrisy at the same time.
Jesus asks them to produce a coin. The fact that they carry the coin reading "Tiberius Caesar, Augustus, son of divine Augustus," shows that they already function under Roman sovereignty. The denarius was about the size of a dime and was the average pay for a day's labor. The men carry these coins as a matter of course. When Jesus asks whose inscription is on it, they reply, "Caesar's."
Jesus' reply is brief: "Then give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." Government has the right to exist and function, but its presence does not cancel out one's allegiance to God (Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2:13-17). To what had been posed as an either-or question Jesus gives a both-and answer, avoiding the trap.
There are many points the passage does not discuss. What happens when there is a blatant moral conflict between the affairs of state and one's union to God? The reply does not endorse a doctrine of separation of church and state, as if these were two totally distinct spheres. What it does suggest is that government, even a pagan government, has the right to exist and be supported by all its citizens. Its existence is not an inherent violation of Christians' commitment to God. The passage does reject the Jewish Zealot approach. Jesus was not a political revolutionary, nor was he an ardent nationalist. He could not have rightly been charged with being politically subversive, though his opponents will misrepresent his words to make this charge in 23:2-3.
Once again, an attempt to trap Jesus has failed. His work transcends politics. His opponents are unable to trap him in his reply. In fact, they are silenced by his response. Frantic attempts to corner Jesus have failed. Another way to get him has to be found. A final point emerges from the drama: Jesus looks to be wiser than the leadership. He knows God's way; they do not.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.