It would seem to be a simple answer with which Jesus replies to the Pharisees, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's and to God the things that are God's."
We know by now that when the Pharisees and elders face off with Jesus there is much more at stake than what first is apparent. In these past few weeks we've heard Jesus sparring with the authorities. Those in high places see more and more people being attracted to Jesus' teachings, which could undermine their power and status. They're looking for ways they might entrap Jesus, causing him to incriminate himself.
Again in today's Gospel the disciples are with Jesus in the temple courtyards in Jerusalem. This time, the Pharisees, accompanied by the Herodians, approach Jesus with complimentary words of praise. "Teacher, we know that you are truthful and that you teach God's way truthfully. You don't care what anyone thinks about you because you don't try to flatter people or favor them. So tell us what you think. Is it lawful to pay tribute to Caesar or not?" Jesus could easily determine that behind their clever approach lay evil intentions.
"Why are you trying to trick me, you hypocrites?" he said. “Show me the coin used to pay the tax." They brought him a denarius. "This image and this inscription," said Jesus, "who do they belong to?" "Caesar," they answered.
"Well then," said Jesus, "you'd better give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar! And give to God what belongs to God!" When they heard this they were astonished, they left him and went away.
Today we are already seeing political campaigning gearing up for the next presidential election. Journalists are lining up interviews and setting up debates. They usually begin with comfortable questioning, giving the candidates a few moments to settle in and relax. But soon the exchange becomes more challenging and the interviewer brings up an issue from years ago, something the one being interviewed is unprepared for or a trick question might be thrown out which really puts them on the spot, making them look less sure of themselves.
Perhaps that's exactly what the Pharisees were hoping to do--put Jesus on the spot where he might say something inflammatory and there would be reason to have him arrested right then and there.
They should know better by now. Certainly, the Pharisees have heard Jesus teaching before and they have watched him outwit those who question him, often with a bit of edgy humor. Their question wants a yes or no answer. Yes would mean that Jesus might abandon God's priorities and side with the Romans. No would mean Jesus is willing to side with rebel political groups who want the Romans out at all costs. Don't they realize Jesus is too clever to fall for such a simple trap?
Taxation was a hateful practice. It forced the people to finance the very system that kept them under subjection. How could good Jews ever consider paying taxes to finance a pagan Roman emperor who claims to be divine?
Mark Twain is often quoted with his view on taxes: "What is the difference between a taxidermist and a tax collector? Answer: A taxidermist takes only your skin." He goes on to say, "We've got so much taxation I don't know of a single foreign product that enters this country untaxed except the answer to prayer."
Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not? Jesus does not answer the question at all. He turns to the people closest to him and asks for the coin that is used to pay the tax. It is interesting that Jesus does not carry a single coin in his pocket! In his lifetime there were certain tax obligations for a Jew in Jerusalem: the temple tithe, levied on all Jews demanded one sort of coinage and the newest tax was the Roman land tax payable in imperially minted coinage. The fact that Jesus apparently had no such coin could indicate Jesus owned no property in lower Galilee nor farmland anywhere else. Jesus stands there, without any worldly resources in a potentially dangerous situation.
"Whose head is on this coin?" Jesus asks. "Caesar," they answer. Caesar of course had his image stamped on these coins. And around the edge of the coin, proclaiming to all the world who he was were the words: Son of God, high priest.
"Well then", says Jesus, "you'd better pay Caesar back in his own coin, hadn't you?" The Pharisees have no answer and they walk away astonished and amazed.
There are endless claims on our finances. It is true U. S. citizens are taxed at a much lower rate than many other countries but still we are faced with gas tax, sales tax, real estate tax, taxes added to our phone and TV bills and on and on.
So we do according to the law--give to city, county, state and federal governments. The question for us is, What do we give to God? We are left to be "Jesus theologians", to determine for ourselves what and how we give back to God.
Scripture says in the 1st chapter of Genesis, we are created "in the image and likeness of God”. We are imprinted with the image of God. Our task is to live into that image in our political and economic choices and in our love of family and friends. Over and above these responsibilities we are reminded to honor the call and presence of God. AMEN