When the enemies of Christ, who thirsted for his blood, could not find occasion against him from what he said against them, they tried to ensnare him by putting questions to him. Here we have him tempted, or attempted rather, with a question about the lawfulness of paying tribute to Caesar. We had this narrative, Matt. 22:15.
I. The persons they employed were the Pharisees and the Herodians, men that in this matter were contrary to one another, and yet concurred against Christ, Mark 12:13. The Pharisees were great sticklers for the liberty of the Jews, and, if he should say, It is lawful to give tribute to Caesar, they would incense the common people against him, and the Herodians would, underhand, assist them in it. The Herodians were great sticklers for the Roman power, and, if he should discountenance the paying of tribute to Caesar, they would incense the governor against hum, yea, and the Pharisees, against their own principles, would join with them in it. It is no new thing for those that are at variance in other things, to join in a confederacy against Christ.
II. The pretence they made was, that they desired him to resolve them a case of conscience, which was of great importance in the present juncture; and they take on them to have a high opinion of his ability to resolve it, Mark 12:14. They complimented him at a high rate, called him Master, owned him for a Teacher of the way of God, a Teacher of it in truth, one who taught what was good, and upon principles of truth, who would not be brought by smiles or frowns to depart a step from the rules of equity and goodness; “Thou carest for no man, nor regardest the person of men, thou art not afraid of offending either the jealous prince on one hand, or the jealous people on the other; thou art right, and always in the right, and dost in a right manner declare good and evil, truth and falsehood.” If they spoke as they thought concerning Christ, when they said, We know that thou art right, their persecuting him, and putting him to death, as a deceiver, was sin against knowledge; they knew him, and yet crucified him. However, a man’s testimony shall be taken most strongly against himself, and out of their own mouths are they judged; they knew that he taught the way of God in truth, and yet rejected the counsel of God against themselves. The professions and pretences of hypocrites will be produced in evidence against them, and they will be self-condemned. But if they did not know or believe it, they lied unto God with their mouth, and flattered him with their tongue.
III. The question they put was, Isa. it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not? They would be thought desirous to know their duty. As a nation that did righteousness, they ask of God the ordinances of justice, when really they desired nothing but to know what he would say, in hopes that, which side soever he took of the question, they might take occasion from it to accuse him. Nothing is more likely to ensnare ministers, than bringing them to meddle with controversies about civil rights, and to settle land-marks between the prince and the subject, which it is fit should be done, while it is not at all fit that they should have the doing of it. They seemed to refer the determining of this matter to Christ; and he indeed was fit to determine it, for by him kings reign, and princes decree justice; they put the question fairly, Shall we give, or shall we not give? They seemed resolved to stand to his award; “If thou sayest that we must pay tribute, we will do it, thou we be made beggars by it. If thou sayest that we must not, we will not, though we be made traitors for it.” Many seemed desirous to do it; as those proud men, Jer. 42:20.
IV. Christ determined the question, and evaded the snare, by referring them to their national concessions already made, by which they were precluded from disputing this matter, Mark 12:15-17. He knew their hypocrisy, the malice that was in their hearts against him, while with their mouth they showed all this love. Hypocrisy, though ever so artfully managed, cannot be concealed from the Lord Jesus. He sees the potsherd that is covered with the silver dross. He knew they intended to ensnare him, and therefore contrived the matter so as to ensnare them, and to oblige them by their own words to do what they were unwilling to do, which was, to pay their taxes honestly and quietly, and yet at the same time to screen himself against their exceptions. He made them acknowledge that the current money of their nation was Roman money, had the emperor’s image on one side, and his superscription on the reverse; and if so, 1. Caesar might command their money for the public benefit, because he had the custody and conduct of the state, wherein he ought to have his charges borne; Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. The circulation of the money is from him as the fountain, and therefore it must return to him. As far as it is his, so far it must be rendered to him; and how far it is his, and may be commanded by him, is to be judged by the constitution of the government, according as it is, and hath settled the prerogative of the prince and the property of the subject. 2. Caesar might not command their consciences, nor did he pretend to it; he offered not to make any alteration in their religion. “Pay your tribute, therefore, without murmuring or disputing, but be sure to render to God the things that are God’s.” Perhaps he referred to the parable he had just now put forth, in which he had condemned them for not rendering the fruits to the Lord of the vineyard, Mark 12:2. Many that seem careful to give to men their due, are in no care to give God the glory due to his name; whereas our hearts and best affections are as much due to him as ever rent was to a landlord, or tribute to a prince. All that heard Christ, marvelled at the discretion of his answer, and how ingenuously he avoided the snare; but I doubt none were brought by it, as they ought to be, to render to God themselves and their devotions. Many will commend the wit of a sermon, that will not be commanded by the divine laws of a sermon.