The Pharisees went away to work out between them how to trap Jesus in what he said. And they sent their disciples to him, together with the Herodians, to say, ‘Master, we know that you are an honest man and teach the way of God in an honest way, and that you are not afraid of anyone, because a man’s rank means nothing to you. Tell us your opinion, then. Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ But Jesus was aware of their malice and replied, ‘You hypocrites! Why do you set this trap for me? Let me see the money you pay the tax with.’ They handed him a denarius, and he said, ‘Whose head is this? Whose name?’ ‘Caesar’s’ they replied. He then said to them, ‘Very well, give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.’
Jesus’ reply to those who are trying to trap him is one of his most brilliant putdowns. The Pharisees had put a lot of work into how they might trap Jesus and they thought that they had got him on the horns of an impossible dilemma. Whatever his reply, they figured, he could be criticised. It was, as we now say, a Catch 22 situation. This set-up situation is the first of a series of such entrapments, ironically in Chapter twenty-two of Saint Matthew’s Gospel. The Pharisees do not approach him themselves but send their disciples and some Herodians, followers of Herod who was part of the apparatus of the occupying power, Rome. They begin with flattery or plamás as we say in Irish. They call Jesus honest. They say that he teaches honestly. They say that Jesus is not afraid and is not swayed by the rank of an individual. It is the big build-up before the hoped-for fall. The question is sprung. Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Jesus sees immediately that this is a trap. He also sees the hypocrisy of those who set the trap. They are asking if God would want them to contribute to the Roman census or tax on produce. If he approves, this would make him a collaborator in the eyes of fellow Jews. If he says no, this might get him in trouble with the authorities as a revolutionary or Zealot. The very authorities that were questioning Jesus with hostile intent helped to farm the taxes and they knew that many people resented the tax. The questioners are insincere. They have no qualms about using the money in the Temple. They have no problem with the pagan emperor’s image and his blasphemous claims to be divine. Jesus, in his instruction to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, distances himself from the zealots who opposed Rome. His instruction to give to God what is God’s makes the obligation to the state relative. He replies that the state can demand of a person their money or services but only God can demand the complete gift of self. He teaches that obligation and obedience to the state can be the same as doing God’s will but our obligation to God is by far the greater one. There is no straightforward or simple rule. The state has its claims. God has even greater claim. We cannot serve two masters though and in the end all that truly matters is obedience to God. If coins with the image and inscription of Caesar belong to Caesar, then human beings created in God’s image belong to God.