This is a familiar lesson about the Pharisees and Herodians trying to trap Jesus by asking him whether it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor.
Just to make sure they were as slick and slimy as possible, they preface their question with a “butter-him-up” introduction: “Rabbi, 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.” Their plan, of course, was to use this set-up to introduce an impossible to answer question. It was an underhanded tactic worthy of this political campaign season.
The Pharisees, you see, were completely opposed to the Roman military presence and oppression. So if Jesus answered “Yes, it’s lawful,” they would accuse him of being a Roman sympathizer. The Herodians, on the other hand, were trying to keep King Herod in power by kowtowing to the authorities in Rome. So, if Jesus answered “No, it’s not lawful,” they would accuse him of treason against Rome. So these two groups with diametrically opposed political positions became “strange bedfellows.” The only thing they had in common is that both groups hated Jesus and wanted to trap him. Of course, by doing so, in their malice they were unknowingly putting God to the test, violating Deuteronomy 6:16.
The same knife that buttered Jesus up, now cuts: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” The tax in question was the census, one dinarius per person. While the silver in a dinarius was only worth $3.62, it was a 12-hour day’s pay for a skilled laborer like a carpenter, stone-mason or plumber, or about $175.00. So this flat-tax was especially burdensome to the poor and unskilled laborers who made much less.
Jesus gives a one-line answer than confounds them all: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Since the emperor’s picture was on the coin, it belonged to the emperor. It is doubly amazing that the pharisees had a denarius. They were not supposed to touch anything with a graven image. And the coin itself proclaimed that the emperor was a god and a high priest. The coin was idolatrous.
So, then what are the things that belong to God. Psalm 24 says plainly “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” Everything belongs to God.
Viewing this lesson as an enacted parable with ourselves as the coin, the question arises “whose image is on us?” The world entices; it lures us to worship money, power, wealth, youth and beauty. In pursuit of those hollow things, people are regularly used and abused. We easily succumb to enticement as the past governor of Virginia recently demonstrated. To sell one’s integrity and honesty for a Rolex watch or a joy-ride in a red Ferrari is a pitiful bargain. The wise will keep their eye on Jesus as they navigate the siren-songs of this world. The wise will love people and use things.