Leading up to the recent midterm elections here in the U.S., a vocal movement known as the Tea Party began demanding a reduced role for the federal government. The central idea behind this movement was (and is) that the American government is too large and is meddling with the autonomy of its citizens. The government should reduce its role, lowering taxes and cutting back its services.

Now, even the most radical Tea Party activists wouldn’t have held a candle to the Zealots of Jesus’ day. These insurgents hated the Roman empire and its authority over the Jewish state. They longed to see the Romans driven out so that Israel could be restored once again to an independent status, just as it was in its heyday. They believed that to submit to Rome was to reject the Lord God as Israel’s King.

So the big political question among Jesus’ contemporaries was whether one should serve Rome (as a collaborator) or serve the Lord (as a Zealot). The people’s sympathy lay with the zealots, and even paying taxes to Rome seemed like a betrayal of their Jewish heritage.

The Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jews, were familiar with this situation, and now they were ready to use it to set a trap for Jesus, who had become a thorn in their sides.

The Pharisees represent the popular resentment of Rome, while the Herodians support Rome and its appointed ruler, Herod. Also, they both hate Jesus. So these unlikely bedfellows try to trap him on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, Jesus could say that no, it is not right to pay taxes to Caesar; this would have earned him popular support but probably landed him in a Roman jail. On the other hand, Jesus could say that yes, it is right to pay taxes—and at once the crowds surrounding him would vanish. Either way, the Jesus problem is solved. So his opponents don’t mind a little bit of sarcastic flattery, telling Jesus, “You are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God.”

They’re about to wish they hadn’t said that.

Jesus knows they’re trying to trap him. He knows that they’re hypocrites, mere actors. They aren’t asking him the question because they want to know the answer. They aren’t interested in finding out how to live a life pleasing to God. No, they’re looking for an excuse to reject Jesus.

Of course, Jesus is too smart for them. He asks for a denarius, the Roman coin used to pay the tax (but rarely used in local commerce). The irony is that Jesus doesn’t have one, but his questioners do—he deftly reveals to the crowd that the Jewish leaders have bought into the Roman oppression, not he! And then he asks, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” Puzzled, they give the obvious answer: “Caesar’s.” And then, with a simple reply—Jesus answers, undermines, and exposes his enemies. “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” he tells them, “and to God the things that are God’s.”

What does this mean? Well, obviously, “the things that are Caesar’s” refers to the coin with his inscription. Jesus is acknowledging that the Roman government has the right to tax the people. There is no essential conflict between human government and divine sovereignty. But he chooses to place his emphasis on “the things that are God’s.” Caesar has stamped his image on the money, but he can never stamp his image on the hearts of the people. That is something God alone has done (Genesis 1:26–27). “Let Caesar have his money,” Jesus is saying, “but you give your self to God.”

That’s something the Pharisees have refused to do. Remember, they’re questioning Jesus about the crucial political issue of their time—an issue that will eventually lead to a Jewish rebellion and the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. So on the surface, they seem wise in asking him about it. But Jesus knows they are hypocrites. They don’t care about giving themselves over to God. They just want to get rid of this troublesome teacher who is undermining their authority by claiming it for himself.

You may be worried about Obama’s health care plan or tax breaks. You may be worried about whether the government has the right to take what you deem to be yours. But don’t get caught up in the small stuff. The government is demanding your money; Jesus is demanding your life. And if you would rather rely on the government to take care of your needs and wants, perhaps it’s time to place full confidence in Jesus to provide security for you. After all, he has claimed the title of Messiah, the anointed King over all the world.

Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:7)

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