Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16So 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. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ 21They 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.’ 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Translation: Then the pharisees went and deliberated together about how they might entrap him in a word. And they sent to him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are true, and that you teach the way of God in truth, and you care for no one, for you do not see into the outward expression of people. Tell us, therefore, what you think: Is it lawful to give a poll tax to Caesar or not?"
But Jesus, knowing of their evil, said, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the money for the tax." And they brought to him a denarius. And he said to them, "Whose image is this, and what inscription?" They said to him, "Caesar's." Then he said to them, "Give therefore to Caesar (what is) Caesar's and those of God to God." And hearing, they were amazed, and leaving him, they went away.
Background and situation: Matthew follows Mark (12:13-17) closely. One minor change from Mark is that Mark has "they sent to him some of the Pharisees," which Matthew changes to "and they (Pharisees) sent their disciples."
This is more a reflection of the world of Matthew, AD 80, than that of Jesus, AD 30. By the time of Matthew, the Sadducees had fallen and the Pharisees were consolidating their position as the dominant tradition within Judaism. In AD 80, pharisaic rabbis had disciples.
Jesus had been speaking to the "chief priests and elders" (21: 23), then "chief priests and pharisees" (21: 45). Now the Herodians are brought into the picture, which means that the tension would have been ratcheted up. The "Herodians" were followers and supporters of Herod Antipas who ruled the regions of Galilee and Perea from 4 BC to AD 39.
Religion and politics: Heretofore, Jesus had been speaking with the religious leadership. Now, representatives of the political leadership, who had the power of the sword, have entered the discussion. Normally, the Pharisees and Herodians would be opponents. Here, they are together in their opposition to Jesus. Politics, and religion, makes strange bedfellows.
The Pharisees and Herodians address Jesus as "teacher," which sounds respectful, though it should be noted that, in Matthew's gospel, Jesus is called "teacher" only by those who don't follow his message.
The Pharisees and Herodians go on to say that Jesus is "true"--the NRSV renders alethia as "sincere," but "true" is better--and that he teaches "the way of God in truth."
At this point, the Greek turns difficult. It has ou melei soi peri oudenos, which, literally, would be "you do not care concerning no one." The NRSV has "(you) show deference to no one." The next phrase is ou gar blepeis eis prosopon anthropown, which, literally, would be "for you do not see into the outward expression of people." Prosopon is the outward visage of an essential nature (hypostasis). It is usually translated as "face," but really refers to the entire external manifestation of one's inner condition.
The Pharisees and Herodians appear to flatter Jesus by twice proclaiming him "true," but then seem to take some of that away by saying that he cares not for others, nor sees "into" (eis) the "face" of people. The sense of it seems to be that Jesus is sincere, but naive concerning the nature of life. Put another way, Jesus does not know what he's gotten himself into. He's in over his head.
This might not have been an entirely unreasonable assumption. The debate about the tax was an important issue in Jerusalem. It touched on the question of how the Jewish people were to relate to their occupying power, the Roman Empire. Should the people support this occupation by paying the tax? It was a tricky question, much debated, and the religious and political forces in Jerusalem might have thought that a street preacher from Galilee--the "sticks"--might not be up to the task of dealing with it.
The Pharisees and Herodians sprung their trap. Is it lawful to pay the "poll tax" to Caesar or not? The "poll tax" was one denarius per year, and was one of three general taxes. (There were many other more particular taxes.)
The "poll tax" was much hated by the people. The zealots, mainly rural anti-Roman terrorists--or "freedom fighters," take your pick--flatly refused to pay it. The common people, the vast majority of whom were poor, sympathized with the zealots on this point.
If Jesus says that the tax should be paid, he would lose much of his political support among the people. On the other hand, if he says the tax should not be paid, the Herodians are right there to arrest him for sedition.
Ironically, the Pharisees and Herodians, here portrayed as united in their opposition to Jesus, were themselves split on the question of paying the tax. The Pharisees generally, if somewhat tepidly, opposed it, while the Herodians, naturally, supported it.
Jesus "knew"--gnous, from ginosko--"their evil" and flatly called them "hypocrites." This was especially true of the Pharisees who liked to strike pious Jewish poses, but are seen here as collaborating with Rome-loving Herodians.
Jesus then asks for the coin, a denarius, which was used to pay the tax. This simple action was an exceptionally deft political move. Note that the entire conversation since 21: 23 has taken place after Jesus has "entered" the Temple. Coins with Roman images and inscriptions were not allowed in the Temple.
What's more, this episode takes place on the morning after Jesus had driven the moneychangers out of the Temple. The reason the moneychangers were there in the first place was to change Roman coins into Temple coins. (Their profit was around 50%.)
By asking for a coin, Jesus sent the message to the on-looking crowds that he, quite properly, did not possess one of these coins. When the Pharisees and Herodians gave him one, they reveal that they did possess such coins. Thus, they disclose that they are, wittingly or unwittingly, supporting the Roman imperial system over against their own Jewish tradition.
Driving home his point, Jesus wants to know whose image is on the coin. The word is eikon and should be translated as "image," not "head," as the NRSV has it. This recalls, as Jesus thoroughly intended, the Torah prohibitions on "graven images." His message is clear: The image of Caesar is an idol.
He also asks what inscription--epigraphe--was written on the coin, which, in the time of Jesus, would have been: Ti(berius) Caesar divi Aug(usti) f(ilius) Augustus, which means, "Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus."
By asking for the inscription on the coin in front of a Jewish crowd, Jesus exposes the pretensions and pagan ideology of the occupying Romans and those who collaborate with them, like, say, the Pharisees and Herodians.
Then comes the famous saying: "Give, therefore, to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's." Any Jew within hearing distance, which would have been the entire crowd observing this scene, would know that "the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof" (Psalm 24: 1). Everything is God's. There are no exceptions. The Pharisees and Herodians, knowing they were licked and hoist on their own petard, can only be "amazed" and leave.
The saying has been oft-used to support the separation of church and state. While I am in favor of this separation, it is an inappropriate use of this saying to apply it to our modern situation. If Jesus had said "but give to God what is God's," you could make an argument that Jesus was making a distinction and trying to carve out separate spheres of action for the political and, supposedly, the "spiritual."
He didn't do that. The conjunction is not "but," but "and." What Jesus was really doing is undermining imperial authority, and exposing the religious leadership as collaborating with that authority.
He was not outlining the separate spheres of the religious and the political. That would have been a bizarre idea in first century Israel. Rather, he was contending against the contemporary leadership of both. In doing so, he was being both political and spiritual at once.
Image: Denarius issued during the reign of Tiberius, AD 14-37.