The teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them. But they were afraid of the people. Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor.
So the spies questioned him: “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
He saw through their duplicity and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. He said to them, “Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent.
The chief priests and religious teachers raged inside, knowing that Jesus had spoken the parable against them, wanting to seize him there and then, but they were afraid of the people and could see that they were still on Jesus’ side. So they waited, watching for an opportunity, planting their people as spies in the crowd in the hope of being able to pounce on something as a basis for bringing a charge against him.
Their previous attack had spectacularly backfired. Undaunted, they came up with another. This time they shifted the angle of attack to the arena of politics and in particular the issue of the hated taxes which the Roman overlords exacted from them. With clever use of flattery designed to appeal to his sense of justice, they asked him publicly if it was right to pay tax to Caesar.
Of course, they thought this time they had him trapped. For if he said yes, then his popularity among the general population would plummet, for the people expected the true Messiah to throw off the yoke of their oppressors. If he said no, then the people would be excited, but they would then have a charge that would stick: sedition and incitement to civil disobedience. The Romans would execute him for that, not caring about the popular vote.
The answer caught them all out: “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”. Some things properly belonged to Caesar, corrupt and unjust as he was. To believe in God and to submit to Christ as King did not mean overthrowing Caesar. To think that the coming of Messiah meant the establishing forthwith of a political government under God was seriously to misunderstand both the present nature and expression of God’s kingdom and the prophetic timetable. Christ had not come to set up a political power base in Jerusalem. He had come to set up his throne in the hearts of men and women.
The church has not always understood this. Despite the clarity of Christ’s statement to Pilate – “My kingdom is not of this world or else my servants would be fighting…” (John 18:36) – the church has from time to time allied itself to various shades of politics and engaged in the disaster of military conflict with the inevitable resulting confusion in the minds of millions with regard to what the gospel actually is. To propagate, enforce or defend the gospel at the point of a sword or through the barrel of a gun is not the way of this King. Jesus sets up his kingdom where Caesar rules, in the hearts and minds of those who love him.