v 14. “Teacher,” they said, “we know how honest you are. You are impartial and don’t play favourites. You teach the way of God truthfully. Now tell us—is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?
Here we go again – the Jews were testing Jesus, provoking Him to give an answer that would either get Him arrested by the Romans as a rebel, or knock Him out of favour with the otherwise sympathetic Jewish crowd. All this ‘buttering up’ of Jesus ‘We know how honest you are. You are impartial and don’t play favourites. You teach the way of God truthfully’ is simply an introduction to the question. The Jewish leaders thought they were on to a winner – how on earth could Jesus escape this time?
The trouble for these leaders was they saw the issue as needing an ‘either/or’ type of response. The whole idea of both/and was foreign to them, yet that was the route Jesus took them down. The delicate balance between civic and religious allegiance has always been controversial, but Jesus puts both into perspective and shows that both have a certain claim on our lives in society. It is possible – and indeed right – to pay tax to an unpopular government and still remain loyal in our obligations to God. Civil government is part of God’s plan for a stable society; Peter puts it this way ‘For the Lord’s sake, submit to all human authority—whether the king as head of State, or the officials he has appointed. For the king has sent them to punish those who do wrong and to honour those who do right.’ (1 Peter 2) Paul puts it even more plainly ‘Pay your taxes, too, for these same reasons. For government workers need to be paid. They are serving God in what they do. Give to everyone what you owe them: Pay your taxes and government fees to those who collect them, and give respect and honour to those who are in authority. ‘(Romans 13)
Jesus too knew the principle of civil obedience and respect for the rule of law in society. He was not going to fall into the trap set for Him by these scheming Jewish lawyers. This whole issue of maintaining the right balance between the rule of God in our lives and the rules of the society in which we live has often created apparent dilemmas for some Christians down the ages. Is it ever right to engage in actions of civil disobedience? Happily – I do not have to answer such a question for you! Only you can resolve that in your personal circumstances and the demands that state might put upon you. All I am sure of is that Jesus showed us that the state can make demands on us for He was a Man like no other, clarifying the relationship between Church and State.