One of Jesus’ most famous sayings challenges us to consider a simple question: what do I owe to whom? The saying is mellifluous in the King James translation, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” It is teasingly straightforward, so straightforward that the saying cannot be made simpler, and yet its meaning is not obvious. What are the things due Caesar and what does not belong to God?
Some interesting context is offered by Isaiah 45, in which God establishes the Persian king Cyrus and calls him, a Gentile ruler just like Caesar, “his anointed” (mashiach). In Isaiah God employs Cyrus “to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes,” even “though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other.” Cyrus is the instrument by which God’s divine majesty is demonstrated. Whatever power Cyrus has is on loan from the Lord. This belief in God’s sovereign rule over all humanity would have been shared by all Jews.
So when some Pharisees and Herodians ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” The question is meant to be the coup de grace in an attack by flattery, in which the set-up—“Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality”—is intended to lower the guard for a trap. What is the trap? Would Jesus align himself with the foreign occupiers by accepting payment of taxes to Rome, and so offend Jewish religious sensibilities, or would he reject payment of taxes to Rome, a popular stance among the people, but potentially treasonous to the Roman oppressors.
Jesus was comfortable on other occasions avoiding questions designed as traps, like the demand to reveal the source of his authority (Mt 21:23-27), but Jesus seems to have felt compelled to answer this question, even if the questioners intended malice, the flattery was insincere and the answer offered puzzling. The matter of the relation between God and emperor, or church and state, required a response.
Jesus asked his questioners, therefore, to “show me the coin used for the tax,” and they showed him a denarius. The image on the denarius was most likely that of Tiberius, who was styled on coins as “Tiberius Caesar son of the divine Augustus,” thereby attributing divinity to Augustus and Tiberius. When the Pharisees and Herodians identify the coin as Caesar’s, Jesus says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
So, who is owed what? Some scholars suggest that it is as simple as it seems: the coins that bear the emperor’s likeness are owed to the emperor. The government, even that of the pagan Roman state, exists only through the true sovereignty of God, and taxes are a part of the obedience due to it. Another proposal points to the enigmatic nature of the saying, whose meaning depends upon whether one believes that all things belong to God, in which case Caesar is owed nothing, or whether one believes the emperor is entitled to taxes, in which case payment is owed to Rome. Whatever the case, Jesus places the onus on his interlocutors to answer their own question and avoids the trap that direct support of either Jewish religious zealots or the Roman state would have caught him. But the question, which now belongs to us, often is seen to be answered when we decide who is owed the denarius. In fact, as an ongoing process of assessment and decision, the deeper question is: What do I owe God?
The coin itself, minted by the Roman state, belongs to Rome, but the denarius portrayed Tiberius as divine, a status reserved for God alone. Perhaps Jesus is saying that in the divine economy, money is not the currency that counts, so give it to those who minted it, which includes deluded earthly rulers. The payment due to the sovereign God alone is worship, and it is owed to no other. And if the things of Caesar and the things of God collide? God is Lord of all.