So they kept a close watch on the situation. They sent spies who hypocritically represented themselves as righteous, so that they might seize hold of something Yeshua said, as an excuse to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor. 21 They put to him this question: “Rabbi, we know that you speak and teach straightforwardly, showing no partiality but really teaching what God’s way is. 22 Does Torah permit us to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor or not?” 23 But he, spotting their craftiness, said to them, 24 “Show me a denarius! Whose name and picture does it have?” “The Emperor’s,” they replied. 25 “Then,” he said to them, “give the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor. And give God what belongs to God!” 26 They were unable to trap him by anything he said publicly; indeed, amazed at his answer, they fell silent.
Classic Christian commentary on this passage turned it into a theory of Christian politics:that there are two realms in any nation, the state which rules over material things and the church which rules over spiritual matters. This says more about the favoured position of the church in the late Roman Empire than it does about this teaching of Jesus.
The question asked is charged; if Jesus picks it up the wrong way it will explode in his face. In effect he is being asked, in public, “Should we rebel against Roman rule?” If he says “yes,” he has declared himself a jihadi and will be arrested as such; if he says,”No” he will be derided by the people as a friend of foreign invaders. The stakes are high.
Jesus deals with it by asking casually for a denarius. The fact that they can give him a Roman coin already reveals that they are not such pure nationalists as to deny themselves the use of foreign coinage. Then he asks about the image and inscription, and they are forced to acknowledge that they have been carrying coinage with the Emperor’s name and possibly blasphemous inscription, as coins frequently named the emperor as divine (divus).
Then comes Jesus’ own bombshell. In instructing them to give Caesar his own money, Jesus simply accepts that Caesar’s rule need not be opposed as a civil administration. But his mention of what belongs to God contains a a subtlety that modern readers may miss. For just as the coin bears the image of the emperor so the human being bears the image of God. So Jesus is commanding that human lives and allegiance must be given only to God, and if the emperor tries to take God’s place, he must be resisted. In this light, the emperor is by no means given a secure place of rule separate from the Rule of God. God owns all human beings including the emperor.
This teaching was indeed obeyed by the Assemblies of Jesus for at least 300 years, during which they submitted to Roman administration, endeavouring to be honest citizens, but refused to serve in the armed forces which had to kill human beings on the emperor’s command, or to burn incense to the emperor as a God. They often paid for this stance with their property, or their lives.
This is not as peaceful a teaching as the church has sometimes pretended, for it asks disciples of Jesus to notice when the state tries to own human lives as it it were God, and to oppose it. So if a state like the defunct Soviet Union refuses people the right to worship, it must be opposed. If a state, like Israel, denies that people of Arab race are not as fully human as people of Jewish race, it must be opposed. And if a state like the UK uses its armed forces to advance its interests rather than to protect its citizens, it must be opposed. In the name of Jesus all such opposition must be peaceful, but it need not be quiet or easy to dismiss.
The answer given by Jesus is fully in accordance with the witness of the Torah and the Prophets in requiring faithful citizens to represent the Rule of God in the midst of whatever secular rule they live under. This Rule particularly means that the lives of men and women and children belong to God; and any policy that denies this belonging must be firmly opposed. I think the early Assemblies of Jesus got this right, both negatively in that they did not consider nationalism worth dying for; and positively in that they were prepared to die rather than fight to impose Roman rule on other human beings.
Over the centuries many Christian churches have been far too comfortable in their avoidance of this radical teaching of Jesus.