Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s (Matt. 22:21).
A nice neat verse to keep my spiritual life and my relationship to the powers separate. Be a good boy and just do whatever the powers ask because the two are ever so separate.
The context for the ‘render to Caesar / God’ reply is toward the climax of the ministry of Jesus. It is centred in occupied Jerusalem and the compromised Temple. The revolutionary has come to town. He has made his entry into Jerusalem on a donkey coinciding and contrasting with the military parade coming in from the west (see: https://3generations.eu/posts/2017/03/provocative-or-what/). The whole city was in turmoil as ‘the prophet from Galilee’ had arrived (Matt. 21:10, 11). Soon after this he makes the very dramatic (and deeply prophetic) act of turning over tables in the Temple, calling for it to be a house of prayer for the nations.
So the scene is set. Tension is high. How dangerous is he? What kind of revolution is he likely to spark? What will be the event that provokes the start of something that will be hard to stop?
The Pharisees with Herodians look to trap him. He is being set up to lose. They pose the question about the legality (from the Torah point of view) of paying taxes to Rome. Pay taxes (the Herodian view) and how ineffective Jesus will appear. He will be seen as lacking courage and selling out. However, refuse to pay taxes and he can be arrested on the grounds of sedition.
Jesus first asks for a coin. They produce the coin, and he deliberately asks them about the image and title on the coin. These ‘holy’ questioners are able to produce a coin with an image on it that is an affront to their own religion, even blasphemous. The image is of Tiberius and the wording is ‘high priest’, ‘son of the divine Augustus’.
In that world the coin (or any such article) belonged to the person whose image appeared on it. The coin therefore was Caesar’s – or so he claimed. Here they (religious Jews) are with pagan coinage, image and titles proclaiming the Imperial myth. ‘Give it back, have nothing to do with that system’ is certainly how Jesus’ response can be understood. (We might well argue though without money we cannot buy and sell… and we might wish to object in one less that 667 ways!). Further you (Jews), as a sign to the world, are image bearers, you bear the image of God (as do all humans). Indeed the whole world belongs to God. The coin belongs to Caesar – that is his claim – but you belong to God. So there is a simple transaction that is to take place. (Caesar’s claim was also false – thus complicating the response required.)
The question started at the wrong end. If the second part is not worked out in totality how can the first part ever be answered? In the light of 100% to God now what are you going to do with the first part, the demand for taxes by Caesar?
There is probably another aspect underneath the passage, a strong allusion to 1 Maccabees 2:29-41 where the dying Mattathias says to his sons:
Judas Maccabaeus has been a mighty warrior from his youth; he shall command the army for you and fight the battle against the peoples. You shall rally around you all who observe the law, and avenge the wrong done to your people. Pay back the Gentiles in full, and obey the commands of the law.
The result of ‘paying back the Gentile in full’ was the armed revolt, the Greeks were defeated, the Temple cleansed and a royal dynasty that lasted 100 years was established.
The instruction was to ‘give back to the Gentiles what they deserve’, and do it within the boundaries of zealous observation of the law.
The texts and the events of the Maccabean period were well known as part of the context in which the people understood the Roman occupation. In the light of that Jesus response is not a clever division of state over here and faith over there – one public and one private. His answer is revolutionary. Give back to Caesar what he deserves. Pick up arms as per the former rebellion against the powers? Maybe some understood it as that.
In the context of being an image bearer how do we respond to the state? The state is not ordained from above. All powers are relative, none can command absolute obedience.
Allegiance to Jesus? Revolution with Jesus.