Politics and religion are hot button topics. If you ever want to have a heated discussion or start an argument with someone, start talking about God or the government. If you really want to add some heat then talk about the two together. People often avoid discussion about these subjects all together, while others run to these heated debates and argue for hours or days.
In today’s text Jesus enters the ring of politics and religion.
I have heard many sermons that misrepresent Jesus’ point of his response in this passage. Too often, people are quick to take Jesus’ response to mean that we need to be careful to balance the sacred and secular in our lives. However, the answer Jesus gives never fully answers the question asked simply because the Pharisees and Herodians were trying to trick him. They really didn’t care what the answer was they just wanted to catch Jesus by answering it the wrong way. The question was “Can one still pay taxes to Caesar and still have sole allegiance to God?” As we will see in a moment this is a well thought out and loaded question.
Paying taxes to Rome was a very sore topic to discuss during Jesus’ days. It was controversial because of what the taxes represented to the Jews. The Jews were not against the idea of paying taxes in general, because they already were paying the Temple tax, local taxes and taxes to Herod, they were against what the tax to Rome represented and that was a loss of freedom.
You can imagine how it would feel if you had to give a portion of your money to a nation who violently and forcefully overthrew your government and country, especially when you believed you lived in the the chosen nation of God. You can imagine how humiliated and angering it would be to pay taxes to a nation and government that took away your freedom, your rights and the ability to worship your God. You would be forced to pledge your allegiance to the country who enslaved, oppressed and imposed her taxes on you for her wealth and well-being. I think that would be a sore spot for anyone of us.
The tax the Pharisee’s were speaking about represented Rome’s rule over Israel. The Jews celebrated the fact that they were God’s chosen people on one hand and agonized over the fact that they weren’t living as God’s people on the other. They were living under oppression, intimidation and fear.
This was one reason why tax collectors were hated people. Tax collectors were Jews who worked for the Roman government by collecting taxes for the nation. The Jewish tax collectors had the authority to take a great deal of money from their own people and in most cases kept a substantial portion themselves. The worse part was they were protected by the Roman government so they could charge whatever they wanted. Not only did the Jews dislike what the tax represented, but the coin itself went against their law of not having carved images. The possession of the coin would be a form of idolatry for the Jews, since the coin had a carved image of Caesar on it. According to N.T. Wright, “(I)mages of human beings were out of the question, and here is Tiberius (Caesar), staring coldly out at the world from every small Roman coin. And writing! Around the head the words say in Latin, ‘August Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus’. On the other side it says: ‘High Priest’ (the Emperors were mainly high priests of the main Roman cult). – If the Romans had gone out of their way to be offensive to the Jews they could have hardly done it better.”