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So what if the image of Caesar was on a Roman coin. What is that compared to the stamp of God upon the entire universe!
The chief priests and the scribes that very hour sought to lay hands on Jesus. So they watched Him, and sent spies who pretended to be righteous, that they might seize on His words, in order to deliver Him to the power and authority of the governor.
They asked Him, saying, "Teacher, we know You say and teach rightly, and You do not show personal favoritism, but teach the way of God in truth: Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?"
But Jesus perceived their craftiness, and said to them, "Why do you test Me? Show Me a denarius. Whose image and inscription does it have?"
They answered, "Caesar's." He said to them, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."
They could not catch Him in His words in the presence of the people. And they marveled at His answer and kept silent.
Luke 20:19-26 NKJV, condensed
If you want to bring down a public figure, what means could you use? Expose their sins. Humiliate them or make them appear foolish. Set a trap. Go after their loved ones. Wait for them to say something which will incriminate. Imply guilt through association (anyone they have ever known will do). Spread lies about them. Question their loyalties. Hire a hit man.
Today people do all these things via the internet. The enemies of Jesus did it the old-fashioned way. Their trap was baited with a face-to-face question, "Should we Jews be paying taxes to the Roman emperor?" The Law of Moses was silent on this one. As with many of our controversial questions, paying taxes to a foreign conqueror is not specifically addressed in the Ten Commandments.
The tax was highly unpopular because it gave legitimacy to the Romans who occupied their country. In defiance, many Jews refused to carry the Caesar's coin in their pockets. If Jesus condoned the tax, the crowds would be disappointed, lose respect for Jesus and go elsewhere. If these devious foes could get Jesus to speak against the tax, the Roman authorities would come down hard on him, maybe even execute him for treason.
"Bring me the coin and let's look at it. Whose picture is this? And whose emblem?" A denarius was valued at a typical day's wage. Made from either silver or gold, it was in use from 300 B.C to 300 A.D. A long line of Caesars had their faces engraved on the coin. The one in this text bore the image of Tiberius Caesar; the inscription read, Son of the Divine Augustine.
By asking to see the disgusting Roman coin, Jesus put his accusers on the spot. If they didn't possess any denarii, and the Roman officials heard about it, these religious leaders would at the least lose negotiating power with the occupying authorities. If they did hand over a denarius, they would be scorned by the rank and file of the people for even having one in their possession. Their actions established their priorities. They chose power and influence over the love and respect of their people. Besides, they wanted Jesus dead and they were counting on the Romans to do their dirty work.
On the coin was the emblem of the state. The image was Caesar's. So Jesus concluded, "Give back to Caesar the things which belong to Caesar. Likewise, give back to God the things which belong to God!" Sounds like Jesus was saying we should pay our taxes, but always remember we have a much greater obligation to fulfill because the signature of God is stamped on all humankind. It's in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible. The theme is as old as Genesis--we bear within us the image of our Creator, therefore our lives belong to God. Not in part, but the whole. Seven days a week, not one in seven.
You may view these words of Jesus as simple or profound, clever or evasive, conclusive or ambiguous. We can make them as easy or as difficult as we like. Some might even describe them as generally clear but cloudy in specifics. Yet one thing is unmistakable. These words repeat the same message Jesus had been preaching all the way from Nazareth to Jerusalem, which is that God gets first place and all else is secondary.
The image of state may be engraved on our money, but the image of God is sealed in our soul and spirit. We may owe money to the IRS, credit card companies and other lenders including friends and foes, but our hearts and lives belong to only one, our heavenly Father. It's a debt of gratitude, love and honor we can never fully repay.
Greenbacks belong "to Caesar"; you and I belong to God. Coins have earthly value, but what is that in the big scheme of things! The actions of Jesus also spoke volumes. His eyes were on eternity. He chose the servant role in God's kingdom to the temporary benefits and prestige of Caesar's empire. Jesus, our Good Shepherd, gave up his own life in order to bring all who are willing into the ultimate Fatherland and render us back to the God who loves us.
Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further study or reflection.
Icebreaker: If your money could talk, what would it tell you?
Most of us pay taxes every day and with every paycheck. What is your attitude toward paying taxes? What alternatives are there?How would the presence of an occupying government add to the burden of paying taxes?Why might the people who were in Jerusalem for the Passover festival have been reluctant to carry the Roman coin in their pockets?
What are some words which describe the chief priests, scribes and Pharisees as they are portrayed in the Gospels? What was at the heart of their interest in speaking with Jesus?How did Jesus expose the duplicity of his questioners as he responded to their contentious question? At the end of the text it says his foes were amazed. What amazed them?
Think about a time when you felt trapped by a controversial question. What kinds of questions are most difficult for you to respond to?Jesus gave an answer that was both/and, rather than either/or. Would you call that a compromising approach? Why or why not?
Refer to Genesis 1:27. Does this verse indicate we rightfully belong to God? Explain your answer. In what ways is God's image evident in your life?
Do you "owe" anything to God? If so, what? If not, why not?How are we to follow Jesus' teaching and give to God what belongs to God?Is being faithful to God more difficult than fulfilling the laws of the land?
Since we pay taxes daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, annually, does that mean Jesus also wants us to remember to give to God whatever is owed on a similar basis? God's collection system is not regulated by coercion, but is based on voluntary acts and loving devotion. How well does that work?
There's an old hymn which says, "All to Jesus I surrender; all to him I freely give; I will ever love and trust him, in his presence daily live. . . ." Do these words express what Jesus meant in this text? Discuss the word "surrender" as it relates to giving ourselves to God.