PassageThis passage is pretty explicit as to what’s going on: some of the religious leaders (the Pharisees and some Herodians—meaning followers of Herod) want to “trap” Jesus and get him in trouble. After some blatantly fake compliments they ask him if Jews should pay taxes to Caesar or not. The reason this would get Jesus in trouble is that they believe there’s no way he can answer the question that won’t get him in trouble with someone:
- If he says yes, Jews should pay taxes to the Romans, the Pharisees believe the people will turn on Jesus. The Jews aren’t happy about being under Roman rule, and so the idea of paying taxes to the Romans is loathsome to them. Add to this the fact that they believe Jesus is the Messiah—and that their understanding of the Messiah is that he’s a military leader who is about to overthrow the Romans—and the religious leaders think this will be enough to get the people to turn against Jesus.
- If he says no, the Jews should not pay taxes to the Romans, the Pharisees believe they can have Jesus tried for treason against the Romans.
ThoughtsThe religious leaders see this as an either/or situation, which is why they thought they had Jesus trapped. He could get himself in trouble with either the people or with the Romans, but he couldn’t please both: you either support the hated Romans or you support God and the Jewish people. Jesus pointed out that, no, it’s not either/or: you should pay your taxes and support the work of God.
I also talked about this in the parallel passage in Matthew 22:15–22, but this type of thinking can also creep into our modern-day perspective as well. “Why should I be supporting the government,” we sometimes think, “instead of helping the poor and giving to my church?” To which Jesus would reply that you should be doing both: the government demands taxes and you should be paying them, and you should also be helping the poor and giving to your church.
I wrote this at a time when Barack Obama, a Democrat, was President of the USA, and a lot of Republicans (many of whom would call themselves Christian) didn’t want to pay taxes to someone they didn’t vote for, but Jesus wouldn’t accept that argument. The Jews definitely didn’t vote for the Romans, but that didn’t factor into Jesus’ thinking on the matter!