Here’s the whole story:
The Pharisees went off and made a plan to trap Jesus with questions. Then they sent to him some of their disciples and some members of Herod’s party. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you tell the truth. You teach the truth about God’s will for people, without worrying about what others think, because you pay no attention to anyone’s status. Tell us, then, what do you think? Is it against our Law to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor, or not?”
Jesus, however, was aware of their evil plan, and so he said, “You hypocrites! Why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin for paying the tax!” They brought him the coin, and he asked them, “Whose face and name are these?” “The Emperor’s,” they answered. So Jesus said to them, “Well, then, pay to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor, and pay to God what belongs to God.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. (Matthew 22:15-22).
Well there’s a lot of gamesmanship going on here. Jesus is causing a disturbance and verbally attacking the religious leaders. They, in turn, are trying to defuse him without causing a public disturbance. To that end, the Pharisees come up with a rather ridiculously transparent plan to get Jesus arrested.
The Pharisees want to catch Jesus off guard, so they send their minions to ask him the question that they hope will be his undoing. They also tip off some of Herod’s followers to show up and witness the sting that they have staged. King Herod, a Jewish convert, is the one who is responsible for collecting taxes from the Jews for the Roman Empire. That’s his job. Collect taxes and keep the Jews in line.
The Pharisees’ lackeys try to warm Jesus up with a little flattery. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you tell the truth. You teach the truth about God’s will for people, without worrying about what others think, because you pay no attention to anyone’s status. Tell us, then, what do you think? Is it against our Law to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor, or not?”
Then, as now, paying taxes is not optional. Back in Jesus’ day, anyone who started a movement to encourage others to stop paying taxes to Rome would be considered an enemy of the state. Same as today.
How ignorant they are about Jesus! Of course he sees right through their childish plot and he calls them hypocrites. Why hypocrites? Because they say one thing and do another. Because they say they are honoring God, but they dishonor him by practicing deception and trying to entrap someone who has done nothing wrong.
They are also apparently ignorant about Jesus’ teachings on money. If they had any knowledge about Jesus they would know he couldn’t care less about money and taxes. Here’s what Jesus has to say about money:
Day 45: Matthew 6:19-21 – Do not store up riches for yourselves here on earth, where moths and rust destroy, and robbers break in and steal. Instead, store up riches for yourselves in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and robbers cannot break in and steal. For your heart will always be where your riches are.
Day 47: Matthew 6:24 – You cannot be a slave of two masters; you will hate one and love the other; you will be loyal to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
Day 85: Matthew 10:8-10 – You have received without paying, so give without being paid. Do not carry any gold, silver, or copper money in your pockets; do not carry a beggar’s bag for the trip or an extra shirt or shoes or a walking stick. A worker should be given what he needs.
Day 170: Matthew 19:21, 23-24 – If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven; then come and follow me. I assure you: it will be very hard for rich people to enter the Kingdom of heaven. I repeat: it is much harder for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
As far as Jesus was concerned, the less money the better. He could have responded to his detractors by simply restating his position that money is bad. Instead, he came up with a brilliantly clever answer. He says that because the money has the Emperor’s face on it, the money clearly belongs to the Emperor and should therefore be returned to him. He said giving money to Rome has nothing to do with being faithful to God. It’s a great statement supporting the separation of church and state. It also draws a clear line of separation between the spiritual and the materialistic elements of our lives. It was so brilliant that his opponents went away amazed. Maybe he even got a few converts that day.
There are a lot of people out there nowadays who are very much opposed to paying taxes, many of them Christians. However, if you are a serious follower of Jesus you would instead thank the government for every tax dollar that you pay. First, a lot of that money goes to helping people in need. Second, and more important, the government is relieving you from some of that nasty money that’s burdening you and making it difficult for you to enter the Kingdom of God (See Day 170). It might not be a popular view, but Jesus wasn’t interested in popularity. Those guys who tried to trip Jesus up in this scripture were right about one thing – he told the truth. And Jesus says the truth is that money is bad for us. And taxes are just another worldly thing that’s not worth getting angry about. Jesus says let it go. The fussing about taxes – and your money.
What does this scripture say to you?