Jesus had a way of silencing his opponents, especially when they posed questions merely to trap Him in his speech, so that they could have some charge to level against Him when the time came, as it surely would, to put Him on trial.
A particularly volatile issue was that of the relationship of the Jews to their Roman oppressors. Some were more or less accommodating (if they could win enough favors through bribes), most were opposed to them but felt there wasn’t much they could do about it, and some were itching for a violent revolution. So the issue of paying tax to the emperor was bound to arouse interest on all sides. Those who asked the question figured that they couldn’t lose. Whatever Jesus said, they thought, would either brand Him a Roman sympathizer (thus alienating most of the Jews) or put Him in the camp of the rebels and thus bring upon Him Roman suspicion or arrest.
Of course, Jesus outwitted them all and gave a profound teaching in the process. When asked if they should pay tax to the emperor, Jesus first asked for a coin. “Whose image and whose inscription is on this coin?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. So He answered, “Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, but give to God the things that are God’s” (Luke -25). His answer was not simply, yes, it’s right to pay the tax, to give tribute to Caesar. He wasn’t entering into the political aspect of the question at all. If something has Caesar’s face and name on it, then it’s his, so give it to him. Caesar is a kind of metaphor for the “world” (in its negative connotation), or more precisely, for that which is not of God. So, let the dead bury the dead, let Caesar have his coins, let the world love its own. But give to God the things that are God’s.
And what are the things of God? First of all, “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 23/24:1). The world (in its positive connotation) is of God, for He made it and called it very good. So we are to make an offering to God of all that is good in the world, all that we make use of for our enjoyment and for the service of others. Give to God the things that are God’s, i.e., use them in a way that is in accordance with his will and hence for our own good.
There is more. Whose image and whose “inscription” are on our immortal souls? “God said: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis ). Well then, when we give to God what is God’s, we must give our very selves. This is what Jesus was trying to drive home to his listeners. It is not for Him to take sides in political squabbles, to be one opinion among many. His mission was much more sublime and universal. He came to save people on all sides of the argument, for there is a far greater issue at stake: our eternal destiny. Emperors and presidents come and go, oppressors and oppressed change roles, tax structures change (but never disappear!), political issues are endlessly wrangled. But everyone must give to God what is God’s.
Shall you pay tribute to the Caesars of today? Follow your conscience. But make sure, at all costs, that you give to God the things that are God’s—especially yourself.