Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
This passage marks the first of four efforts by the religious leaders to entrap Jesus. Jesus’ answer is far more than disarming a trap. Jesus’ answer, that we render to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar, and to God the things that belong to God, teaches us about His unique role in salvation history and reminds us of our calling, and the conditions of our lives until His return. In His answer, Jesus is reminding us that our work and witness will be within the existing political systems of the world, regardless of their oppressive natures. Jesus has not yet come to overthrow governments, nor has He come to create a kingdom that will compete with the Caesars of the world.
As God’s adopted heirs, our first allegiance is rightly to the Kingdom of God; Jesus’ answer, however, reminds each one of us that we are called to live as if we truly understand ourselves to be stewards of all that belongs to God. It is in our daily witness of loving our neighbor, of caring for the earth, and even of fulfilling our obligations to our political systems, that we glorify God until Christ’s return. And it is in this response to our witness that we see the working out of His plan of salvation, not just in our lives, but also in the lives of those around us.
The Rev. J Brian McVey
Church of the Advent, Nashville, Tennessee