The religious leaders were taken aback by the Parable of the Tenants but not defeated. Not too long after Jesus had finished and they had slunk away, the Pharisees and the Herodians returned with a question.
Did you miss that?
The Pharisees and the Herodians got together to ask Jesus a question. Two groups of people who could not stand each other, united in order to strike at Jesus. Jesus was a threat to the religious authority of the Pharisees and to the political authority of King Herod (and thus, Rome).
The text says the question was meant to “catch him in his words.” It was yet another clever trap that Jesus’ enemies were setting for him; it was yet another step toward the tenants growing tired of the Son of the Master trampling around “their” vineyard.
“Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth…”
It always amazes me how these liars and hypocrites thought that they could actually convince Jesus of any of that! His entire ministry they have accused him of everything from religious insubordination, to blasphemy, to consorting with demons! Why do they think this sudden use of flattery was going to suddenly make a difference? It reminds me of the truth about Jesus being spouted through the mouth of a slave girl by demons; it became so annoying that Paul turned around and exorcised it right out her.
Flattery has never and will never impress God. God is eternally secure and confident in his own nature; he is not manipulated by men’s attempts to brown-nose him.
“…Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay it or shouldn’t we?”
This was their clever attempt to ask Jesus a question to which he was between a rock and a hard place. Jesus had asked such a question about the baptism of John the Baptist just a little before. It had left the religious leaders embarrassed and humiliated and now they thought they had the perfect question to return the favor.
If Jesus said, “Yes, pay taxes to Caesar,” that would destroy the people’s view of him as the Messianic Son of David and put in him in disfavor with many of the people who wanted to throw off Roman rule. If he said, “No, don’t pay taxes to Caesar,” then he would be willfully defying the Roman government and would be inciting rebellion against Caesar.
There seemed like no way out for Jesus.
“But Jesus knew their hypocrisy…”
Jesus knew that they did not care about paying taxes to Caesar; he knew they were trying to trap him. So, he prepares the perfect response (God tends to do that) in order to shame and disappoint his religious custodians once more.
“Why are you trying to trap me?”
You can almost see a mock in this question; Jesus is about to make them look incredibly stupid. The question is such that Jesus is asking, “Do you really think you are more clever than me?” Jesus was the Son of God in the flesh who was connected to the Father who knows all things…the idea that they would even attempt to trap him was absurd!
“Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.”
Jesus commands that a coin be brought to him and then asks a simple question, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
Jesus is basically making it a “duh” moment for the Pharisees and Herodians. They don’t know yet that they have been had, so they probably smile and piously proclaim, “Caesar’s.” This was it; this was the moment that they had been waiting for, the moment when Jesus would uphold Caesar and alienate his entire support from the Jewish population. No, it wasn’t as good as getting a Roman condemnation, but at least they can arrest him for religious issues without the support of the people. Finally, Jesus had been put in…
“Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
Wait, what!? The text says that “they were amazed at him.” So caught up in the promise of their victory, that they did not see the possibility that Jesus could affirm both God and Caesar! The Pharisees wanted the money to fuel the religion (but not necessarily the Temple cult practices) of the Jewish state and they felt paying taxes to Rome was stealing from that. The Herodians believed that the more Roman they became the more the Empire would embrace them and that meant regular taxes to Caesar, even if it meant neglecting the Jewish religion.
Neither side saw that perhaps one should pay taxes and give to support the mission of God in the world! Shouldn’t the Messiah call for the end of paying taxes to Rome? Shouldn’t the Messiah be only concerned with the future restoration of Israel, which would require that money being sent to Rome?
They were perplexed at Jesus’ answer because they did not understand that while Jesus had authority over both Israel and Rome, Jesus was not there to exercise his authority. Jesus was there to serve and to give his life as a ransom for the many. As he would tell Pontius Pilate a few days later, “My kingdom is not of this world; if it were, then my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders.”
God calls us to be good citizens but generous givers; just as our Lord was on this earth.