Once more trying to trap Jesus, they send spies (20:20), pretending to be sincere, and ask him a cunning question. First of all, they start with flattery. Flattery is normally a trap (Proverbs 29:5), but here their flattery has a particular aim. They are encouraging him to be straightforward, frank, “sincere,” without guile. Note: it is one thing to always be honest, but it is another thing to speak without wisdom when surrounded by your opponents. Frankness is not deserved of every man, while truth must be spoken to all. It is the path of wisdom to find a way to speak the truth even when presented with a trapping question, such as this one.
Their specific question, about whether to pay taxes to Caesar or not, is particularly tricky. If Jesus says they are not to pay taxes to Caesar, then he is inciting rebellion against the Roman authorities and will be in trouble those officials. If, on the other hand, Jesus says that they are to pay taxes to Caesar, then Jesus will be offending many of the Jewish people, and be in deep trouble with them. He is being pinned on the horns of a dilemma.
Now watch Jesus’ answer. He replies with another question! Note: when faced with an almost impossible question, do not accept the precepts or preconditions of that question. Ask another question in reply.
But also note the careful wisdom of Jesus’ question and reply. He asks them for a denarius, that is for a Roman coin. They produce one. That itself is telling. They are using Caesar’s money. Then he asks them whose image is on the coin, and of course the answer is that of Caesar. His statement to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s not only sidesteps the trapping question, but also establishes a theological principle for the church, and calls them to acknowledge their need to honor God. No one can accuse him of sedition or fraternizing with the enemy with this answer.
But it also shows that the “image” that they are to give to God is the image that they themselves bear. They are to worship God by giving God what is due. This implicitly calls them to acknowledge the image of God in front of them—Jesus, the Son of God—and to give God the Son all the worship due his name. And it establishes a principle that Christians are to pay taxes, and that the church is to be a city of God, in this world but not of this world, honoring those who are worthy of honor, understanding that even secular authorities are established by God. (See Romans 14.)
Let us pray that God would give us wisdom when we are faced with trapping questions. Let us also pray that God would help us to give him the honor that is due his name. And let us not feel it to be impious to pay taxes and give respect to those who serve in public offices and are deserving of our respect.
To receive God Centered Bible devotionals directly in your inbox, sign up here.