A Roman denarius from the time of Christ
No one likes paying taxes.
We’ll start there because that’s where the Pharisees and the Herodians started. It helps to know that these two groups didn’t like each other, but they both wanted Jesus dead. Because most Jews hated the Romans and hated paying the taxes the Romans imposed, the Pharisees and Herodians came up with a question for Jesus that was meant to trap him.
Here’s the question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” It’s tricky because if Jesus says no, he wins popular approval, but the Herodians will report him to Rome as a revolutionary, bringing swift reprisal from the army. If he says yes, he satisfies Rome but loses face with the masses who hated their Roman overlords.
Jesus doesn’t directly answer the question. Instead, he asks his questioners for a coin. They gave him a Roman denarius (pictured above) with the image of Emperor Tiberius on the front with the inscription, “Tiberius, Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus.” On the reverse was “Pontif Maxim,” meaning “High Priest” of the ancient Roman religions. Besides being a monetary unit, it also promoted idolatry because it deified the Roman emperor.
Since Rome issued the coin with the emperor’s image, it meant that the emperor “owned” that money. The same is true today. An American $5 bill has a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, meaning it is legal tender issued by the government. I happen to have a handful of bills in my wallet right now. None of them have my picture. If I tried to pass off bills with my image as real money, I would soon be arrested for counterfeiting.
Jesus’ answer has two parts:
1. Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. Jesus seems to be saying, “Look at the coin. Caesar’s image means the coins belong to him. Give him what he demands,” which means “Pay your taxes.”
2. Give to God what belongs to God. We can understand this properly by asking, “Whose image do we bear?” Just as the Roman denarius was stamped with the image of Caesar, we have been stamped with the image of God. He made us, he owns us, and we owe our life to him.
There is a deeper sense in which Jesus is saying, "You need to decide what matters most. If Caesar wants money, give him money, but Caesar is not God. Pay your taxes, but do not forget your higher allegiance."
The Lord wants to make sure that we “give to God what belongs to God.” He’s not just talking about money. We owe the Lord everything. We must not hold back on him.
The familiar hymn Take My Life and Let It Be shows us the true application. In successive verses, the song says:
Take my Life.
Take my Hands.
Take my voice.
Take my silver and my gold.
Take my will.
And then finally,
Take my love; my Lord, I pour
at thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself, and I will be
ever, only, all for thee,
3ver, only, all for thee.
If we follow that progression, we will always end up in the right place. We will take all that we have and give it gladly to the Lord, and we will be “ever, only, all for thee.”
No wonder they were amazed and could not answer him (v. 22). His words hit too close to home.
Will you today give to God what belongs to him?
My Lord, when I am tempted to hold back, may I remember that you never held back but gave yourself for me. Please help me live ever, only, all for you. Amen.