Jesus’ response to the question about paying taxes to their Roman overlords can inform our discussion about how we relate to our society as his followers (Matthew 22:15-22). Galilee, the place where Jesus grew up as a Jewish boy more than two thousand years ago, was radically different from our world. Jews in Galilee were an oppressed minority living on the margins of the Roman Empire. We, in contrast, are citizens of the most powerful nation on earth.
Jews were forced to pay tribute to their Roman overlords. Taxes were oppressively high and many small farmers fell into bankruptcy when they couldn’t pay. There was an armed tax revolt in Galilee six years before the birth of Jesus. The Roman army marched in and brutally put down the uprising, crucifying the rebels on crosses strung along roads all over the region as a warning to anyone who dared resist the power of Rome.
Such popular discontent doesn’t go away when it’s crushed through military force, as we know from today. Instead, it goes underground and keeps smoldering. That was the situation during Jesus’ lifetime. The popular Jewish sentiment was that paying taxes to the Romans was unjust and violated their scriptures. Jewish elites, on the other hand, saw it as a necessary compromise.
Now along comes Jesus, a hotshot young rabbi adored by the masses and feared by the elites. The elites feel the need to clip his wings and come up with a brilliant scheme. They’ll flatter him into making a public commitment on the tax question. It’s a perfect gotcha situation. If he says he’s opposed to paying the taxes they’ll report him to the Romans who’ll arrest him for inciting rebellion. If he says he supports paying the taxes he’ll lose his popular support.
Jesus saw right through their subterfuge and turned the tables on them by asking to see a Roman coin. A significant detail to this story is that poor people generally didn’t carry Roman coins and handled financial transactions through bartering. Only rich people carried money. It’s telling that Jesus didn’t have a coin but his opponents did. He asks them whose image and inscription is on it. They tell him its Caesars and he tells them to return it to Caesar. He has completely outwitted them.
But that’s not all he says. He ends by telling them to give to God the things that are God’s. As every good Jew knows, we’re created in God’s image and we belong to God. Giving to God the things that belong to God trumps all other considerations. This gets to the heart of the matter. What does it mean to belong to God? How do my other identities and loyalties relate to my primary identity as a child of God?
We American Christians tend to view Jesus’ answer as splitting the difference. We do what our American citizenship asks of us in our public life and we go to church and worship God in our private life. Jesus’ Jewish audience would never have understood his words in that way. They knew their whole life belonged to God.