Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?’ But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.’ And they brought one. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were utterly amazed at him. (NRSV)
From the opening sentence we see Jesus being set up. The attack is orchestrated by the religious elite. Sometimes the hunter is very close to home.
Unsurprisingly, they are less than genuine. So much so that they – almost nervously – begin by highlighting the Jesus’ sincerity. They can articulate his indifference, impartiality, and truthfulness even as they play their power games.Any admiration they harbour for Jesus does not go beyond shallow flattery. It will never extend to the imitation of faith.
The question of Roman taxes was always going to be contentious. No, we are not talking about a willingness to make financial contribution to society. This is a harsh tax imposed by occupying powers. It covers the cost of Jewish oppression.
Of course contributing to the invading forces could be considered either prudent or ludicrous. Paying kept a semblance of peace. Withholding was a statement of Israel’s God-given freedom and independence.Few topics divided people as easily as Israel’s bolstering of Roman coffers. Living under oppression often has a way of highlighting where one places what little power is left over.
Jesus will do well to answer carefully. Taking either side risks creating powerful enemies.
So Jesus begins by naming their motive. Their insincerity has not blinded. They are hypocrites – speaking one way while behaving another. From the outset their question lies exposed.
But Jesus has a hidden test of his own. His request for a denarius seems simple and innocent. So much so that the coin is given without fanfare or question. In fact it is the very ease with which they perform this deceptively simple task that gives them away. Perhaps they only need to reach into a pouch or pocket. Wherever it comes from these leaders produce the emperor’s currency with ease.
After all, it is the very currency with which they deal.
And as they place it in his hand Jesus presses the point: Whose face (or icon) and title is on your coin? Who really owns it? They do not even see the trap. Their answer: ‘The emperor’s’ exposes their all too comfortable complicity with their oppressor. They deal daily in the currency of Rome.
Jesus summarises their situation: ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s’. The Pharisees and Herodians are compromised enough to owe in two directions. They have an allegiance with two kingdoms.
But people cannot serve God and money. Neither can we hold allegiance to God and power. As Jesus said, to try is to risk nurturing a love for one and a hate for the other (Matthew 6:24).