Such a short Gospel passage that can really lead to a lot of introspection, reflection and discussion: The separation of Church and state – the relationship Christians have with secular authorities – how do we bring our faith into the public square. They are all important discussions but too often people use this scripture to simplify it to saying “put the secular stuff here and the church stuff there…” That’s where some feel justified in holding a contradictory position about moral issues or debates saying – I might personally believe this but I don’t want to impose my belief on others. But that’s why so often context is essential.
The people posing Jesus the question about paying the tax were looking to create division. If Jesus says paying the tax is fine, then the Jews who were occupied, mistreated, basically enslaved by the Romans would be furious. If Jesus says not paying the tax is fine, than the Romans would see him as a traitor, a rebel, a trouble maker. And so on the surface people see Jesus’ response as a clever way of getting out of the controversy – give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.
What is missed in this is how Jesus is calling them out and each of us as well. Jesus unmasks an important reality – namely that the Jewish leaders asking the question – they’ve already aligned themselves with Rome… They had already accepted the status quo. They couldn’t be objecting to paying the Roman tax on Jewish grounds because they were carrying the Roman coin. Yeah, they might have acted angry and complained about being occupied by the Romans when it suited them “oh this is so unjust…” – but they had also gotten comfortable with it. Unlike their ancestors who refused to eat things that were un-Kosher under the oppressors threats – these people weren’t fighting the Romans, they had accepted their lot – and lived under the rule and authority of the Romans, they conspired with them when they needed to (as we’ll see in Jesus’ unjust trial and death). That is what is symbolized in their carrying the coin.
So Jesus’ saying “pay to Caesar what is Caesars” is His way of pointing out if you’ve made a choice to align with the things of this world, the rules of this world – then you have to accept your lot – don’t look for me to fix this. It would be like someone going to a priest and saying “Father I bet everything on the roulette table and won’t be able to feed my family – isn’t that unjust, shouldn’t the Casino owners have to let me keep my money?”
On the other hand though – we don’t have to choose to live like that. In fact He hopes that we won’t. That’s why the call to follow Him is meant to be life-altering. Because if we’re to give to God what is God’s” – nothing’s excluded… We recognize our very lives are a gift from Him. And the only way to adequately repay that is by living a life where His law, His commands affect every aspect of who we are, and how we live.