15 Then the Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap him in speech.16They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status.17 Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”18Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?19 Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin.20He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”21 They replied, “Caesar’s.” At that he said to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”22When they heard this they were amazed, and leaving him they went away.
Isaiah 45:1, 4-6, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b
Politics and religion make for strange bedfellows. Two oddly paired groups arrive on the scene to challenge Jesus with a difficult question. The Herodians and the Pharisees shared a faith in the God of the Jews, and both wanted autonomy for their people, but there they parted ways. The Pharisees, more religious, were waiting for the Messiah to restore a theocracy in Israel. The Herodians, more secular and more pragmatic, wanted self-rule by establishing a member of the Herodian dynasty on the throne. At the time of this encounter with Jesus, some Herodians may even have thought of Herod as the Messiah. They supported Rome if Rome would continue to support their Jewish king.
Together they come to Jesus with a question that is presented to him in a public forum. They begin with flattery, then ask Jesus about his position on the “head” tax assessed by their Roman overlords. This mandatory tax amounts to a day’s wage, a denarius for each man, woman, and child aged 12 to 65. It is the price paid to be subject to Roman rule and authority. They probably hope that Jesus will be put off his game by their flattery. They acknowledge that he is qualified to explain the Torah to them and hope that he cannot see through to their real intent.
For no public question is neutral in ancient Mediterranean culture. Questions are challenges, and an incorrect answer means lost honor and public shame. This helps explain why Jesus so often responds to public questions in the Gospels with a question of his own. He turns the tables on his opponents and puts them on the defensive. Here the reversal comes when he asks the two parties to produce a Roman denarius, the coin used to pay the tax. Jesus is surprised that the coin is found so quickly and comments aloud about the idolatrous image of Tiberius on one side of the coin and the blasphemous inscription on the reverse that declares Tiberius a divine figure.
No Pharisee would possess this coin. They had actually devised methods to pay the tax without having to touch, much less possess, idolatrous coins. It had to be a Herodian who carried this coin onto the Temple Mount. The Herodians would not be bothered to exchange a denarius for coins acceptable for use in the Temple treasury. They were not likely to make a contribution anyway.
Jesus wins this challenge decisively. His critics are silenced and the crowds are in awe. He returns the coin to the original Herodian owner. Give back to Caesar what belongs to him. So yes, we should pay the Roman head tax. Then he turns to the Pharisees and challenges them to give to God what belongs to God. He is saying emphatically that they are not doing their jobs in the eyes of the Father and that they should be ashamed of their association with the Herodians.
Two words—truthful and hypocrite—leap off the page as we read and reflect on this Gospel passage. The first is used by the Pharisees and Herodians to flatter Jesus (verse 16). They are trying to put him off his guard, and perhaps also to strengthen their challenge by reminding him of his own reputation—surely he won’t dare soft-pedal the truth to make his hearers happy. They don’t know who they are up against.
Jesus is aware of their malice and calls them a group of hypocrites. Why did Jesus use this word? Hypocrite is the Greek word for actors on the stage. All the characters in a Greco-Roman play were males who were hidden behind masks. They only pretended to be someone other than themselves. They threw their voices so that they could be the men, women, children, even talking animals in the play. Actors on a stage were not to be trusted. We do well to meditate on these words as they relate to our faith. Are we the real deal or a fake imitation? Are we hypocrites, actors on a stage going through the motions of our faith without any conviction? Are we concerned with other people’s opinions, or will we be known as truthful people?
St. Paul teaches that the work of each believer will be tested by fire at the end of history. In 1 Corinthians 3:12-15, Paul writes that our good works will be shown for what they are, brought to light, revealed by fire on the day of judgment. The fire will test the quality of each person’s work. Are we ready for that test? Can we take the heat?
Lord grant that I may live a life worthy of your name. That I can bear the test of the work I do when that work is tested by fire. Help me build my life on the true foundation of faith and to build with materials that will withstand the final test. Give me wisdom to know how to build with gold, silver, and precious stones so that my life will be spent in honor of you and your church.
“Give back to God the things that are God’s.” When Jesus says this to the Pharisees he is not talking about money. He is addressing these Pharisees as self-identified religious leaders in Jerusalem in an attempt to shame them back into a right relationship with God, enlivening their faithful but sterile service to the people and to God in the Temple. He expects little from the Herodians but much more from the Pharisees. They should know better.
What about you and me? Are we giving our lives to God? Do we need to give them back to God? If so how is that accomplished? Perhaps it will mean a return to the sacraments and a deeper devotion to the Lord. It might mean deepening our relationship with God through prayer and more regular attendance on Sundays. It may mean some service to the poor or another step in “the way of God.” Ask the Lord to show you, and the Lord will reveal the next step toward giving your life back to God—who is, after all, our life’s source and our eternal home.