The teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them. But they were afraid of the people.
 Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be honest. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor.  So the spies questioned him: “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.  Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
 He saw through their duplicity and said to them,  “Show me a denarius. Whose portrait and inscription are on it?”
 “Caesar’s,” they replied.
He said to them, “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
 They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent.
“So the spies questioned him: ‘Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.’ ” (20:21)
The spies begin with a fawning flattery, trying to paint Jesus into a corner. When people flatter us our antennae should go up immediately. People who flatter are either sincere gushing admirers who can’t control themselves or shrewd individuals seeking to manipulate us by means of our pride. Bible authors hold no sympathy for flatters:
“Everyone lies to his neighbor;
their flattering lips speak with deception.” (Psalm 12:2)
“A lying tongue hates those it hurts,
and a flattering mouth works ruin.” (Proverbs 26:28)
“Whoever flatters his neighbor
is spreading a net for his feet.” (Proverbs 29:5)
“By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people.” (Romans 16:18)
What is the difference between flattery and learning to be gracious in speech? A very fine line. Graciousness seeks to honor and act the best toward a person. Flattery seeks to manipulate and turn them to our own purposes. The key is motive.
Do we as Christian disciples use flattery to get our own way? Did our mothers or fathers demonstrate before us how to use flattery to their own ends and teach us manipulation by their example? Have we become flatters?
But another important question for disciples concerns our own susceptibility to flattery. What makes us susceptible? Insecurity and a need for the approval of others. Pride can easily become our downfall — many, many leaders have succumbed to its enticements. The only antidote to flattery is genuine humility. Not mock humility that fences with flattery, but genuine humility that boasts in Jesus alone and not in one’s own accomplishments.
For Jesus, the model Servant, flattery bounced off like raindrops off a raincoat. What the spies say is actually true: Jesus DOES “speak and teach what is right,” He DOESN’T show partiality. He DOES teach with full integrity. But their truth is meant as flattery. If they can get Jesus to preen before them and nod as they praise him, they may be able to force him to blurt out his true antagonism to the Romans. That is their strategy.
Springing the Trap (20:22)
Now the loaded question:
“Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (20:22)
The term “taxes” (NIV) or “tribute” (KJV) is Greek phoros, “that which is brought in as payment to a state, with the implication of dependent status, tribute, tax.” In addition to property taxes, the Romans required an annual payment of one denarius, a day’s wage, per adult male. The Jerusalem Sanhedrin itself was responsible for collecting this particular head tax.
If Jesus agrees that Roman taxation is right, then perhaps they can turn public opinion against Jesus with the same vehemence with which tax collectors are hated. But if, as they suspect, Jesus secretly despises the Romans’ right to occupy Israel and place burdensome taxes on its citizens, perhaps they can get him to say something that can be construed as rebellion against Rome. Perhaps they can paint Jesus as a Zealot, one who fights to free Israel from Roman domination. It is a trick question, all right!
Render to Caesar (20:23-25)
Notice how Jesus answers their trick question with a question? We see this elsewhere in Jesus’ ministry (11:53; 20:3; Matthew 22:34-46; Mark 8:12; John 8:6). It reminds me a bit of the Semitic tradition of riddles and may have been a Rabbinic form of discourse in Jesus’ day. In verse 23, Jesus refers to their trickery as “duplicity” (NIV) or “craftiness” (KJV), Greek panourgia, “cunning, craftiness, trickery,” literally “readiness to do anything.”
“He saw through their duplicity and said to them, ‘Show me a denarius. Whose portrait and inscription are on it?’
‘Caesar’s,’ they replied.
He said to them, ‘Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’ ” (20:23-25)
It is important to recognize that the head tax must be paid with a denarius, the very coin Jesus asks his opponents to show him. That they have the coin indicates that they should have already known the answer. That they would even be holding such a coin was ironic, since it bore an inscription that the Jews considered blasphemous: “Tiberius Caesar, son of the deified Augustus, Augustus” and on the obverse an image of the emperor’s mother Livia as an incarnation of the goddess Pax (peace), with the words “High Priest.”
Jesus’ answer is marvelous in its balance. “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” The word “give” (NIV) or “render” (KJV) is the Greek verb apodidomi, “to meet a contractual or other obligation, pay, pay out, fulfill,” used of wages, taxes, vows, duty, etc.
Jesus is saying: If the coinage bears Caesar’s image, then it indicates that Caesar is the ruler who should be submitted to in paying taxes. Later Jesus’ Apostles spell out the Christian’s obligation to submit to earthly rulers (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17). By his answer Jesus indicates that his is no rebel.
The implication is that we are to pay our taxes fairly and honestly, without any attempt to subvert the law. This is required of us as Jesus’ disciples.
Render to God (20:25)
But Jesus continues, “And [give] to God what is God’s.” Perhaps there is the implied question, whose image do you bear? The image of God, all Jews would acknowledge (Genesis 1:27). Then, Jesus is saying, with your bodies, minds, and spirits, you yourselves, you owe allegiance to God himself.
You and I pay our taxes because we are afraid of being penalized for cheating. But are our motives to serve God any more exalted. Do we serve him because we fear displeasing him or because we love him?
My dear friend, whose coinage are you? Whose stamp and image do you bear in your soul? God’s. Then you own Him your full allegiance — to love him with all your heart, your soul, your mind, and your strength (Deuteronomy 6:5; Luke 10:27).
The lesson the Pharisees and chief priests learned from this encounter was not to ask Jesus trick questions. But disciples learn two lessons infinitely more important: to submit willingly to the requirements of the civil government, but even more important, to give our all in tribute to God, for it is his image we bear in this world.
Father, forgive us for the games we would play with our taxes. Be even more, forgive us for obscuring your image to those around us. Help us to give you your full due — with all our heart, and soul, and mind, and strength. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.