[The Pharisees] ask Jesus whether he thinks it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor. It is a clever question that is meant to put Jesus in an impossible position. If Jesus says that taxes should not be paid, it would make him a rebel against Rome. If he says that taxes should be paid, he will appear to be on the side of the Herodians, collaborators with Rome, and he will not be a credible prophet.
Jesus is not taken in by their flattery, not only recognizing them as hypocrites but naming them as such. He refuses to respond directly to their question but instead asks them to show the coin used for the tax. Rome, it seems, not only required a tax, but wanted the tax paid in Roman coinage.
Those who sought, like the devil, to entrap him brought the required coin to him. He asked them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered that it was the image of the emperor’s head. Jesus then told them that they should give to God the things that are God’s and to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s. When they heard this answer, they were amazed and left him.
Unfortunately, through much of Christian history, Christians have not been amazed by this answer. Rather, they have assumed that they know what Jesus meant when he said we are to give to the emperor what is the emperor’s and to God what is God’s. It is assumed that Christians are a people of a double loyalty to God and the state. Christians are told that they should never let their loyalty to the state qualify their loyalty to God, but they never seem clear when and if such a conflict might actually happen.
Jesus requests the coin, minted to pay the tax, to be given to him. He does not possess the coin. He does not carry the coin, quite possibly because the coin carries the image of Caesar. Jesus’s question is meant to remind those who carry the coin of the second commandment: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Exod. 20:4–5).
Jesus’s answer that the things of God are to be given to God and not to the emperor is a reminder to those who produced the coin that the very possession of the coin makes them idolaters. Jesus is not recommending in his response to the Pharisees that we learn to live with divided loyalties, but rather he is saying that all the idolatrous coins should be sent back to Caesar, where they belong.
Just as Jesus knows no distinction between politics and religion, neither does he know any distinction between politics, economics, and the worship of God. Those who have asked him whether they should pay taxes to the emperor are revealed to be the emperor’s faithful servants by the money they possess.
That God and the emperor cannot both be served is, moreover, not solved. For many, this account of Jesus’s claim that we are to give to the emperor what is the emperor’s and to God what is God’s creates an insoluble problem because they do not see how followers of Jesus can then live in the world as we know it. But to recognize that we have an insoluble problem is to begin to follow Jesus.