When the Pharisees and Herodians invited Jesus to comment on political issues and sectarian tensions, they were trying to lure him into their turf where together they could divide and conqueror his public popularity. The Pharisees and the Herodians were politically polar opposites. The Pharisees were a conservative, patriotic Bible-believing religious group of Jews who opposed King Herod and the Roman empire that gave him power. On the other side of the debate was a political party supporting Herod and the Herodian dynasty called the Herodians. These two parties of contrasting beliefs questioned Jesus concerning the subject of Roman taxation, one of the most divisive political issues between the Pharisees and Herodian.
The Herods were responsible to collect and pay a heavy tribute to Rome to secure their favored position and their needed support of Rome. In the process of collection the Herods would collect a substantial amount above and beyond Rome’s demand to help compensate their efforts and maintain their own government, military and life style. In addition to this the perfects of Judea such as Pontius Pilate would collect a poll and land tax to be sent directly to Rome. Of course, the Jewish Temple and religious system received none of the benefits of this money, so the Jewish religious leaders collected their own tax. So, together the taxes collected by Herod, Pilate and the Temple authorities were financially crushing the people. In his work the Bible Background Commentary Keener estimates that 49% of the annual income of a Jewish family went to these taxes:
- 32% to Rome (19% crops; 13% sales and income)
- 12% to Jew (8% crops; 4% Temple and sacrifices)
- 5% to corrupt officials
If Jesus had responded negatively towards Roman taxation of Jews he would naturally be labeled anti-Rome and would be associated with previous rebels who had led revolts against Rome because of this very issue of taxation (the revolt of Judas of Galilee in 6 AD which founded the Zealot political group which ultimately led to the Jewish revolt in 66 AD). If Jesus, who was now a popular public figure, renounced Roman taxation on the Temple Mount it is likely he would been arrested, and possibly executed, as a rebel. If Jesus had chosen to speak out against Roman taxation, this would be a legitimate punishment for insurrection. Jesus would have died for rebellion against Rome instead of for the sins of the world. In fact, Luke says something very close to this:
“They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor.” – Luke 20:20
In contrast to speaking out against Rome, Jesus could have sided with Rome and then watched his worshipful crowd reject him because of his political stance on taxation. For sure, the public opinion will turn against Jesus, but it must not be over a political statement addressing taxation. Jesus is to go to the cross as the rejected Messiah, not as a sympathizer of the Roman Empire.
But, neither is Jesus’ response a crafty answer that avoids the question like politicians often seem to do when they maneuver all around an issue without really say anything.
Jesus’ answer is both an offensive attack on his accusers and at the same time a lesson in a basic biblical view concerning the doctrine of government.
First, Jesus attacks his questioners by simply asking for a coin. Any Jewish coin would never have an portrait of a man on it since that would be considered an “image” and a violation of the second commandment. Any coin that the Herod’s minted contained a helmet, a shield, an anchor, cornucopia, ceremonial bowl, pomegranate and, on one very rare case, an eagle. The vain, self-promoting, self-preserving Herod never put his image on a Jewish coin in order to avoid the outcry from the pius Jewish people. Rome’s coins came complete with the emperor’s image and an inscription identifying the Roman emperor as Divi Filius, or “son of a god.” These coins were forbidden to be used by Jews and would be unthinkable to carry them into the Temple Mount. Because of this the Romans allowed the Jews to mint their own coins for use in their own land.
With this knowledge Jesus asks his opponents to give him a coin while standing on the Temple Mount. The coin that Jesus is given is a Roman Denarius (the smallest silver coin in circulation in Israel and equal to a day’s wages). Yes, a forbidden Roman coin minted by the oppressors themselves complete with the “idolatrous” image of Tiberius Caesar and the inscription of his ascribed deity on the obverse side. On the reverse side was Pax, the Roman goddess of peace, seated and encircled with the inscription “High Priest” (see coin here).
Jesus simply asks, “Whose portrait? Whose inscription?” They answer, “Caesar’s.” Their possession of the “idolatrous” coin is self-condemning, and to have it with them on the Temple Mount earns them the title of rebuke from the Lord: “You hypocrites.”
The second point Jesus makes is doctrinal and one that is often confused: Government is established by God. Government is a good institution. Throughout the New Testament government officials are respected and their governmental duties are honorable. There is no evil vs. good contrast between government and God. In fact, God established government.
Because of this doctrinal truth, Jesus has no trouble telling his critics the issue of taxation is not his concern. It is Caesar’s rightful position and Caesar's coin. So, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But, give to God what is God’s. The people had become so engrossed in politics and rebellion against government that they had neglected to give to God his rightful portion of his respect and honor. You do not need to neglect either God nor Government. Both can be honored and respected in their rightful place.
The text then says:
“When they heard this they were amazed.”
Right, because no one had ever explained it to them from the biblical position before.