Even though the Sanhedrin had made up their minds about Jesus, they didn’t have the spine to act. They were afraid of the crowds, who were hanging on Jesus’ every word. So they sent spies, with a fawning pretense, attempt to either sever Jesus from the crowd, or find an excuse to let Rome get rid of him.
The Character of the Questioners
Luke gives us insight into the character of these men at the end of chapter 19. There, we are told that “The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people were seeking to destroy” Jesus (Luke 19:47). But in Luke 20:19, we’re told that they were afraid of the crowds. We know that they were not concerned with truth, so much as political expediency, popular opinion and self-preservation, since their deliberations over Jesus’ previous question (Luke 20:1-8) never addressed the truth about John the Baptist, only the fallout from any potential answer they might give. Proverbs 6 tells us that these men and everything they are about is an abomination to God:
There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: 17 haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, 18 a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, 19 a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers. (Prov 6:16–19 ESV)
And are not these 1)arrogant men, 2) devising a wicked plan, 3) using deception 4) to shed innocent blood, 5) breathing out lies (even though their flattering words were true, they didn’t mean them), and all this 6) to sow discord among brothers.
The Goal of the Questioners
That is, of course, their goal. They are content with either of two results. And they believe their question guarantees one of the two. If Jesus’ answer is unpopular with the people, then they will no longer be hindered by their fear of the crowds. They will be able to do with Jesus what they want. On the other hand, if his answer suits the crowd (so they reason), then it will certainly not suit Rome. Either he loses his popular appeal, or he can be handed over to the governor on a charge of sedition.
So they ask him (after attempting to flatter him) whether it is lawful to pay tribute to Caesar, or not. The tribute spoken of was not the same sort of tax collected by the tax collectors. It wasn’t an income tax or based on any sort of transaction. It wasn’t a sales tax or a toll. It was a head-tax, a poll-tax. Everyone paid the same amount. It is well-translated ‘tribute’, since Roman citizens didn’t pay it. It was a sign of subjection. A century later, Tertullian would call this tax a “badge of slavery.” And that’s how it was viewed. It was exceedingly unpopular, and the cause of many rebellions. Nevertheless, failure to pay the tax, and encouraging others to withhold payment of it would be viewed by Rome as sedition.
So, if Jesus answers, “Yes”, the questioners reason, he will lose the following of the crowd, allowing us to seize him without risk. But if he answers, “No”, then we can hand him over to Pilate, and avoid the wrath of the crowd by allowing Rome to take care of their ‘problem.’ It was a brilliant question, from one point of view.
The Answer of Wisdom
But Jesus’ answer is more brilliant. In it, he manages both to affirm the people’s duty to Rome and call the people back to the first principles of their religion. He asks them for a denarius, not because he cannot come up with one himself. All he needed to do was ask Judas for the money purse. But he asks them to produce it because, by doing so, they will demonstrate that they are already participating in the Roman economy and benefiting from Caesar.
Rome provided a peace and a road system that caused trade to flourish. The people were benefiting from the work of Caesar. What is more, it was Caesar who guaranteed the value of the currency they were using. Justice requires that they give tribute where it is due:
Pay to all what is owed to them: tribute to whom tribute is owed, taxes to whom taxes are owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Rom 13:7)
But by raising the just debt that they ought to discharge in just this manner, pointing to the image of Caesar on the coin used to pay the tax, Jesus subtly reminds everyone listening of the fact that they are created in God’s image:
God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Gen 1:27 ESV)
If Caesar is due money (which Jesus has consistently taught must not govern our desires and passions and actions), God is due us, our whole beings, body and soul:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your rational worship. (Rom 12:1)
Or, as Jesus puts it, “Render to God the things that are God’s.” We are created to reflect the character of God back to him.
Wisdom is the Point
This passage is surely a safe text to go to, when discussing our duty to the state. But Luke seems to have placed this here to for another reason. Together with the other stories in chapter 20, this passage shows for the supreme wisdom of Jesus Christ. He who created the heavens and the earth (Prov 3:19; Psa 136.5; Col 1:16; John 1:1, 3, 14) cannot be trapped by human ploys.
Jesus has the authority to rule your hearts. Bowing the knee to him is the most rational response to the great work of the gospel, where our King stooped to take on human flesh, lived for us, died for us, and gave us His Spirit as a down payment on an inheritance graciously reserved for us. But if we need even more encouragement, Luke would have us know that our King is wise beyond measure. He will never, ever lead us astray.