You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. – Exodus 20:4-6
Benjamin Franklin once said, “The only things certain in life are death and taxes.” The April 15th U.S. tax deadline is looming which means that the post offices will be filled with procrastinators and tax donors tomorrow.
I learned something interesting this past week about the story of Pharisees and Herodians who tried to trap Jesus by asking him if it is right to pay taxes to Caesar or not. This story is recorded in three of the gospels (Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17, and Luke 20:20-26). Here is Mark’s account of this event in Mark 12:13-17:
Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him.
It is significant that Jesus asked for a denarius. Rome required that the toll tax be paid with a denarius. The denarius bore the image of Ceasar to remind the rebellious Jews of Roman authority. To add insult to injury, this coin had the following words inscribed on it, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus.” The poll tax created a predicament for the Jews because it had to be paid with a coin with a graven image of a ruler who claimed to be divine. The denarius and the second commandment, which prohibits making and worshiping graven images, were clearly not in alignment.
When Jesus said, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” He was satisfying the Herodians by acknowledging that it was right to pay taxes. He was also reminding the Pharisees to give the graven images back to the pagan government and to focus instead on what belongs to God. Jesus was also reminding the Pharisees to remember the Shema (taken from Deuteronomy 6:4-9), which begins with the words “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”
The Bible says that man is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). When we obey Christ’s command to love God and love others as ourselves (Matthew 22:36-40) we give back to God what is God’s. Money is a necessary tool, and Christians are called to be good stewards of it. We are called in Scripture to work hard so that we can provide for our own needs and for the needs of others. The problem comes in when we begin to worship and rely on money instead of God. Dear Lord, please help us to remember to give to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s this week. You alone are worthy of our worship and praise!