We have here Christ’s evading a snare which his enemies laid for him, by proposing a question to him about tribute. We had this passage before, both in Matthew and Mark. Here is,
I. The mischief designed him, and that is more fully related here than before. The plot was to deliver him unto the power and authority of the governor, Luke 20:20. They could not themselves put him to death by course of law, nor otherwise than by a popular tumult, which they could not depend upon; and, since they could not be his judges, they would willingly condescend to be his prosecutors and accusers, and would themselves inform against him. They hoped to gain their point, if they could but incense the governor against him. Note, It has been the common artifice of persecuting church-rulers to make the secular powers the tools of their malice, and oblige the kings of the earth to do their drudgery, who, if they had not been instigated, would have let their neighbours live quietly by them, as Pilate did Christ till the chief priests and the scribes presented Christ to him. But thus Christ’s word must be fulfilled by their cursed politics, that he should be delivered into the hands of the Gentiles.
II. The persons they employed. Matthew and Mark told us that they were disciples of the Pharisees, with some Herodians. Here it is added, They were spies, who should feign themselves just men. Note, It is no new thing for bad men to feign themselves just men, and to cover the most wicked projects with the most specious and plausible pretences. The devil can transform himself into an angel of light, and a Pharisee appear in the garb, and speak the language, of a disciple of Christ. A spy must go in disguise. These spies must take on them to have a value for Christ’s judgment, and to depend upon it as an oracle, and therefore must desire his advice in a case of conscience. Note, Ministers are concerned to stand upon their guard against some that feign themselves to be just men, and to be wise as serpents when they are in the midst of a generation of vipers and scorpions.
III. The question they proposed, with which they hoped to ensnare him. 1. Their preface is very courtly: Master, we know that thou sayest and teachest rightly, Luke 20:21. Thus they thought to flatter him into an incautious freedom and openness with them, and so to gain their point. They that are proud, and love to be commended, will be brought to do any thing for those that will but flatter them, and speak kindly to them; but they were much mistaken who thought thus to impose upon the humble Jesus. He was not pleased with the testimony of such hypocrites, nor thought himself honoured by it. It is true that he accepts not the person of any, but it is as true that he knows the hearts of all, and knew theirs, and the seven abominations that were there, though they spoke fair. It was certain that he taught the way of God truly; but he knew that they were unworthy to be taught by him, who came to take hold of his words, not to be taken hold of by them. 2. Their case is very nice: “Isa. it lawful for us” (this is added here in Luke) “to give tribute to Caesar—for us Jews, us the free-born seed of Abraham, us that pay the Lord’s tribute, may give tribute to Caesar?” Their pride and covetousness made them loth to pay taxes, and then they would have it a question whether it was lawful or no. Now if Christ should say that it was lawful the people would take it ill, for they expected that he who set up to be the Messiah should in the first place free them from the Roman yoke, and stand by them in denying tribute to Caesar. But if he should say that it was not lawful, as they expected he would (for if he had not been of that mind they thought he could not have been so much the darling of the people as he was), then they should have something to accuse him of to the governor, which was what they wanted.
IV. His evading the snare which they laid for him: He perceived their craftiness, Luke 20:23. Note, Those that are most crafty in their designs against Christ and his gospel cannot with all their art conceal them from his cognizance. He can see through the most politic disguises, and so break through the most dangerous snare; for surely in vain is the net spread in the sight of any bird. He did not give them a direct answer, but reproved them for offering to impose upon him—Why tempt ye me? and called for a piece of money, current money with the merchants—Show me a penny; and asked them whose money it was, whose stamp it bore, who coined it. They owned, “It is Caesar’s money.” “Why them,” saith Christ, “you should first have asked whether it was lawful to pay and receive Caesar’s money among yourselves, and to admit that to be the instrument of your commerce. But, having granted this by a common consent, you are concluded by your own act, and, no doubt, you ought to give tribute to him who furnished you with this convenience for your trade, protects you in it, and lends you the sanction of his authority for the value of your money. You must therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. In civil things you ought to submit to the civil powers, and so, if Caesar protects you in your civil rights by laws and the administration of justice, you ought to pay him tribute; but in sacred things God only is your King. You are not bound to be of Caesar’s religion; you must render to God the things that are God’s, must worship and adore him only, and not any golden image that Caesar sets up;” and we must worship and adore him in such way as he had appointed, and not according to the inventions of Caesar. It is God only that has authority to say My son, give me thy heart.
V. The confusion they were hereby put into, Luke 20:26. 1. The snare is broken; They could not take hold of his words before the people. They could not fasten upon any thing wherewith to incense either the governor or the people against him. 2. Christ is honoured; even the wrath of man is made to praise him. They marvelled at his answer, it was so discreet and unexceptionable, and such an evidence of that wisdom and sincerity which make the face to shine. 3. Their mouths are stopped; they held their peace. They had nothing to object, and durst ask him nothing else, lest he should shame and expose them.
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