Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. Matthew 22:15-22
The following questions may be helpful in interpreting this passage.
Who am I going to serve?
In 2020, we in the U.S. may be quick to read this passage as Jesus' endorsement of the separation of church and state. That is a 21st Century construct (actually 18th Century) imposed on First Century Palestinian Jews living under Roman rule. The core of the Jewish identity begins with the Shema: Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Deuteronomy 6:4-5 The question for believers, then and now, is- who are you going to serve? Or, as Jesus claimed, "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth." Matthew 7:24.
Who tells me who I am?
Another fly in the ointment for Jews in Jesus’ time was that foreigners (Romans) occupied the land covenanted to ancient Israel by God. Yet, the people were subjects of the Emperor. In the Exodus, Hebrew slaves became God's own people, a holy nation. A yearly festival, the Passover, served as a continual reminder of that freedom. Being set free and being God's covenant people are one and same. A sign of freedom in Roman times was for Jews to recline at table instead of waiting tables, hand and foot.
Jesus' teaching in Matthew 22 suggests that, while taxes may be necessary, the real “tribute,” if there is any to be paid, belongs to God. The coinage came from Rome and to Rome it returned. Human leaders like Tiberius claim to be super- human, but in the end, they all will pass away. God alone lives and reigns forever: "Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish." Psalm 146:2
Giving to God what is God's means that everyone and everything belongs, now and forever, to God: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it; the world, and those who live in it…” Psalm 24:1 All that I am and all that I have belong to God. I am on this earth for a season and a reason: to steward and share the gifts God has given me, as long as I live and breathe. Shortly after I was confirmed and joined the church, my Mother gave me a small wall poster which read: “What we are is God’s gift to us; what we make of ourselves is our gift to God.”