But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. ‘Why are you trying to trap me?’ he asked. ‘Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.’ 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’
‘Caesar’s,’ they replied.
17 Then Jesus said to them, ‘Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.’
And they were amazed at him.
All day long on this very busy Tuesday Jesus is engaged in confrontation. The priests, Pharisees, and Scribes and even the Sadducees have been bombarding Jesus with theological questions in both hypothetical situations and very real, politically charged situations. All day long Jesus has been confounding them, telling parables that point out their failings and cleverly evading their attempts to discredit him. And somewhere in the middle of the day a scribe, an educated man employed by the priests or Pharisees, asks a question and agrees with Jesus’ answer. There is no confrontation, no test, no effort to make Jesus look bad or to incriminate himself. This is the only such situation all day.
Jesus is challenged in the temple court before the crowd over paying taxes to Caesar. There is a fawning approach to Jesus Teacher, we know you are sincere and show deference to no one. This passage has reasonably been understood as a comment on the importance of keeping an appropriate relationship and distance between religious and civil authorities: we are to render to God and we are to render to Caesar. Some have argued that Jesus' response is a tacit acceptance that we are to be obedient to the state whatever it requires of us, but to see the passage this narrowly misses the wider context of attack, parry and counter attack, trap, escape and counter trap.
Should we pay taxes to Caesar was a volatile question that went to the heart of Israel's status as a subservient nation. Either answer would get Jesus into trouble: if he were to answer no, he could be charged with denying Roman authority - in short with sedition. If he were to answer yes, he risked discrediting himself with the crowd who resented Roman rule and taxation. Perhaps the plan was to separate Jesus from the crowd and undermine his support.
His response is clever and turns the situation back on his questioners: he sets a counter trap when he asks for a denarius which his interrogators produce. Whose head is this, and whose title? This strategy has led his questioners to disclose to the crowd that they have a coin with Caesar's image on it and in this moment they are discredited. Why? In Israel in the first century there were two types of coin: one type, because of the Jewish prohibition of graven images, had no human or animal images. The second type, including Roman coins, did and many Jews would not carry the second type in obedience to Jewish law. But these Pharisees did. The coin they produced had Caesar's image along with the idolatrous inscription heralding Caesar as divine son of God. They are exposed as part of the politics of collaboration and the crowd sees it. Their trap has been evaded and the counter trap sprung.
His response Give to the emperor the things that are the emperors is a non-answer to their original question. It simply means It's Caesar's coin - give it back to him. This is not an endorsement of paying taxes to the occupying force. The second part of his response, though, is both evocative and provocative: Give to God the things that are God's. It raises the question "What belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God?" Everything belongs to God and by implication, nothing belongs to Caesar.