I admit that as a child, I was always highly confused by this. First, it's on the heels of Jesus' seemingly psychotic reaction to moneychangers in the Temple. That, in and of itself, was at odds with my idea of the peaceful, loving Jesus of the NT. The Jesus who overturns tables, scatters the merchants, and physically assaults the wares of the temple-goers seemed so fundamentally wrong that I'd brush it off, unable to reconcile the differences.
Next, Jesus seems to be saying that just because a coin has the Emperor's face on it, it belongs to him. That seems like a cheap way to say "Well, his name is on it, so give it back." That always reminded me of the bully in school who would say "That desk is mine!" and when you'd look at him thinking "What?" he'd point out his name, angrily etched into the grain, as proof the territory belonged solely to him.
However, I came across a book not too long ago that taught me how to delve deeper into the context of these passages. In attempting to better understand the Bible, this is one of those passages I took out for a test drive.
As I try to teach my current crop of students, we cannot fully appreciate the lessons of the New Testament without first understanding the Old. We also cannot understand the lessons of Christ without looking at His messages as a whole.
In other words, I'd been going about processing this particular story all wrong. Instead of "ignoring" the images of Jesus I was uncomfortable with, I needed to embrace them. Instead of reading this story out of context (just a snippet of a larger message), I needed to place this on the timeline of Christ's message and hear what He was trying to say and listen to the message as one of those present would have.
So let's lay out the framework for those less familiar with this particular story.
Jesus is preaching, publicly, to a group of the faithful.
The Pharisees send a representative to entrap Jesus with a question. The answer to that question, they believe, will indict Him against Rome and ensure His execution as traitor.
Jesus discerns the motive for the question and reprimands the representative, not before, however, indicting the representative against the Jewish people He was preaching to.
Now that we have the framework, we need to place this in a timeline. This exchange happens on Holy Tuesday... two days after Palm Sunday and three days before Good Friday. Unless you really know your gospels, that fact can be lost when you're hearing this reading on a Sunday in October.
The reason this is particularly important is the holiday in which it occurred. Jesus was in Jerusalem for Passover. Passover brought INCREDIBLE numbers of Jews from all over the empire to the temple to celebrate their most important feast. Keep in mind... since Jerusalem was a huge mecca the week leading up to Passover, extra Roman authorities were brought in to keep Roman rules in check.
In other words, there were a lot Jews in Jerusalem and because of that, there were a lot of Roman soldiers eyeballing everyone as a potential threat. That's also why Pontius Pilate was in Jerusalem. He didn't typically reside there. He, too, was brought in as an extra presence... a heavy reminder that though the Jews were allowed to practice their religion, they were still to recognize Rome and Caesar as the supreme "Son of God."
As a result, it makes perfect sense that the Pharisees would be extra inclined to get Jesus out of their hair. After all, Jesus represented a very real threat to them. They weren't just concerned that He challenged their religious authority... they were extremely concerned that He threatened their very existence in the face of THEIR bosses (the Romans) who had tasked them with keeping their people under the authority of Caesar.
So the fact that Jesus is running around preaching, in public, about the Kingdom of God and inviting the lower classes to unite (peacefully) against the materialistic, imperialistic and oftentimes violent Rome... it's no wonder their panties were in a bunch! If Pontius Pilate caught wind that the puppet leaders of the Jews weren't doing their job in assuring the authority of Rome, not only could they have been deposed - they could have been put to death as traitors themselves!
Again, this is VERY important to understanding why the Pharisees were so gung-ho about trapping Jesus in a public setting. Considering that Jesus had already gone berserk with the moneychangers just a day earlier, their nails were bitten to the cuticle and they needed to prove themselves as capable of squashing this rebellious leader.
The question they posed to Jesus was this: "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?"
Truth be told, that is an absolutely BRILLIANT question to ask. To answer "No!" would label Jesus a rebellious traitor who could be jailed or worse for His denial of Roman rule. To answer "Yes!" would label Jesus as a traitor to His own people. Remember, the Jews at this time were under the rule of Rome. The yearly siphoning off of their hard-earned money was a painful reminder that they were not free and were, instead, working to prop-up the arrogance and wealth of their overlords. This is why tax collectors were hated. This is why money-changers weren't trusted.
So the Pharisees figured this question was win-win for them. A "no" would ensure Jesus was sent to jail and a "yes" would ensure every Jew listening to Him would spite Him henceforth. I have to give credit where credit is due, and they deserve credit here. That is a BRILLIANT question to pose.
No worries, though. For as brilliant as that question is, Jesus' answer trumps it by a mile. Jesus says "Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the money for the tax."
This first piece of information, though typically glossed over, is hilarious. Why did Jesus call them hypocrites? Why did He ask them to show Him a coin?
Because Jesus didn't have a Roman coin! None of the people He was preaching to would have had a Roman coin. Only the Pharisees or their corrupt representatives would be carrying around Roman coins! Jews would have to go to the Temple to change their local currencies into Roman currency in order to pay the tax. Once the tax was paid, they'd go right back to using local currency, doing their best to avoid any and all ties with Roman lordship (including use of Roman money).
Jesus, in asking for a coin, proves two things at once. First, He is unified with His Jewish followers against using Roman money. Secondly, He proves that the Pharisees were NOT unified with the Jews because they DID, in fact, keep and use Roman money.
This is why Jesus revealed them to be hypocrites. They put Jesus to the test without realizing that they, themselves were guilty of that which they were attempting to paint Christ into a corner with. Ah... hilarious.
Anyway, after they acknowledge the image of Caesar on the coin Jesus' response continues "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."
This response is in no way evasive. It seems like that at first glance, though. However, in order to understand how precise this response is, the listeners must first understand the reference Jesus makes. Since the Roman soldiers wouldn't have been avid followers of Jewish Scripture, they wouldn't have picked up on the fact that Jesus was calling His listeners to mobilize for the coming revolution. The Jews Jesus was preaching to, however, would have heard the message loud and clear. The representatives of the Pharisees, too, would have understood the message, but would have been powerless to explain it to Roman soldiers. Thus, Jesus spoke the Truth free from reprisal.
You may be wondering how this could have been a call to mobilize. Again, let's go back to the Old Testament.
1 Maccabees, Chapter 2 deals with the defilement of the Temple and the enslavement of the Jews by Gentile forces. A small group of Jews decided to accept the violent force the Gentiles were using in coercing them to ignore God and His Commands. As a result, they were murdered viciously. Another small group of Jews, seeing this attack on their way of life, banded together and began a rebellion against the Gentile forces, demanding respect for the laws of God in the face persecution from Gentiles (those with no regard for God's Commands). The leader of this rebellion, Mattathias, was put to death for his part. However, before he accepted his fate, he pressed his followers to continue the fight for the right to follow God's Will above all else. His final words before execution were "Pay back the Gentiles what they deserve and observe the precepts of the law."
Mattathias wasn't telling his followers to pay the Gentiles taxes. He was requesting that his followers avenge the violence committed by the Gentiles and to always give God the obedience His Law deserves.
This entire nuance was lost on the Roman soldiers who no doubt stood watch over the crowd. Jesus' followers, however, must have inwardly rejoiced, amazed - no doubt - by His courage and desire to overthrow the Romans who so viciously ruled them.
Jesus took their very dangerous trap and turned it into such a triumphant victory that the Pharisees were probably besides themselves with fear. It's no wonder they stepped up their efforts (through Judas) to dismantle Jesus' "Kingdom of God" rebellion before they, themselves, ended up killed.
So now, having a better grasp of the timeline, framework, and audience of this exchange, we come to understand that Jesus isn't just saying "Everything belongs to God." Jesus is concretely saying: "Followers, I have come as I have promised you. I have begun the rebellion as your Messiah. I have come to bring you salvation... to bring you the Kingdom of God. For that, I am happy to die. I now ask the same of you. After My Death, you must continue to carry out God's Commands. You must continue to strive to follow God's Will, and God's Will alone. Despite imperialism, despite materialism, despite the persecution that is sure to come, you MUST be willing to abandon yourselves to the Word of God. YOU carry the stamp of God within your soul, and as such, YOU belong to God. Give yourselves to Him wholly in all you do."
A very interesting and spine-tingling note about Mattathias' final words that only more firmly cements Jesus' prophetic call to action:
"Here is your brother Simeon who I know is a wise man; listen to him always, and he will be a father to you. And Judas Maccabeus, a warrior from his youth, shall be the leader of your army and direct the war against the nations."
Just as Mattathias left his followers Simeon (also known as Simon or "Thassi") as a wise and trusted father for his people, Jesus left for us Peter (ALSO known as Simon) as our first Holy Father. It's interesting to me that Mattathias' Judas is a champion of the Jewish armies while Jesus' Judas turns out to be unwitting champion of the enemy's army.
"Behold, I make all things new!"