When faced with a demand for public witness and presence, or disagreement about the role of religion in the public arena, we tritely invoke the mantra: “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
Instead of the rightful Reformation demand for the separation of church and state, this mantra has been used to justify a separation of religion and politics.
The context of this passage begins with Jesus’ cleansing the temple and calling the businessmen operating there “a den of robbers.” This castigation also includes those who have provided the space to trade there (19: 45-46). It is clear that they received kickbacks under the table for the sales on top of the table. This situation is further exacerbated when Jesus begins to teach in the temple every day (19:45-48). The physical attack and occupation of their domain brought Jesus, for the first time, to the full attention of the chief priests, scribes and leaders of the community. So they now want to kill him.
Simultaneously, however, Luke poses the counter force of “the people” (laos), who blocked the authorities from exercising their power to kill Jesus (c.f. 19:47-48; 20:19). It is clear that by this time the people were the only ones who were not against Jesus. These events have infuriated the chief priests, scribes and elders and they are watching Jesus’ every move, waiting for any opportunity to eliminate this subversive influence.
Chapter 20 therefore opens with their challenge vis-à-vis the source of his authority. Jesus’ theological rejoinder about John the Baptist puts them in a quandary and they know they are trapped. Their answer would get them into serious trouble: either their hypocrisy would be exposed, or they would expose themselves to the people’s ire. So they plead the fifth. Using their own politics as grounds, Jesus also refuses to name the source of his authority. Jesus then narrates the parable of the wicked tenants, which is clearly directed against them, so they are further incensed and want to really harm Jesus: “… they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, [note the urgency] but they feared the people.” So twice in this chapter the people are explicitly shown as the cause of dis-ease and fear for those in authority. This is the reason for their inability to immediately react to the loss of their surreptitious income and the occupation of their pedagogical/catechetical space.
So Vs. 20 begins with the scribes and chief priests keeping Jesus under surveillance. They are trying to find a way to undermine the people’s support for him so they can achieve their nefarious designs against him. They sent spies (egkathetous could be read as secret agents or simply agents–Luke clearly wants to depict the covert and political nature of their mission) to try to trap him in front of the people. These spies “pretended to be honest” (dikaious, implies righteous or just). The classical Lukan hyperbole is worth noting here: by default a spy has to pretend what he is not, otherwise they are not spies. That these apparently just and righteous people work for the temple powers, expressly to persecute and murder an innocent man because he threatens their status quo, has to be hyperbolized. The spies are necessary because the status quo is scared of the people who protect Jesus as a wall. This wall must be eliminated if they are to achieve their villainous plot. So their mission is to trap him, and expand the jurisdiction of the problem by letting it be controlled by the power and authority of the Roman governor (exousia tou hegemonos: or the authority/power of the hegemon, i.e., empire). They have taken an intra-Jewish issue and changed the sphere of authority from the Jewish temple, to the larger context of Roman Empire. This shift is of critical importance for those who are persecuted and suffer for the sake of their faith. It is not only the empires that produce this persecution but also the internal colluders who work for them against their own people.
In order to achieve their goal they must manufacture some proof which can be used against him by the empire, or turn the crowd against him so that the Jewish establishment can do away with him without fear of the people. So these spies set the trap by first sycophantically praising him as a teacher, acknowledging the rightness of what he teaches (in this context meaning what he says against the scribes and chief priests), and that he teaches the way of God without fear or deference, in accordance with truth. This affirmation, however, is a cynical rhetorical device to present themselves as genuine inquirers or students. Immediately after these very nice words they spring the trap, “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
This is a nasty counter-trap against Jesus: if Jesus says yes, he will be totally discredited in the eyes of ordinary Jews–the people, who are restless and oppressed under Roman imperial rule, and who would then probably turn on him. On the other hand, if he says no he will be subjected to a charge of treason against the Roman imperial masters. Jesus has clearly “perceived their craftiness”–no naïve ascetic spiritual leader this. He is not led astray by their sycophancy or hypocrisy. Jesus is clearly aware of the material, political and cultural realities around him and of their motivations and social and human characteristics.
Instead of directly answering their question, he once again answers them by making a seemingly innocuous request for a denarius, in this simple and innocent request Jesus has sprung a trap of his own. He has not asked them for a shekel, Jewish coins which usually did not carry any image, but specifically for a denarius, a coin minted by Rome with Caesar’s image. Such a coin even if used for other purposes would not have been in the possession of an ordinary Jew who would have changed it at the temple and would most certainly not have used it for the temple tax. These “honest” Jews, do not demur or bring out a shekel, regardless of Jesus’ actual request, but produce a denarius, and thus fall head first into Jesus’ trap. Precisely by showing that they carry denaruis rather than shekels, Jesus shows them up as impious and unrighteous men.
Jesus then rubs their noses in their hypocrisy to ensure that everyone notices it. So he asks the spies: whose head is on this coin? The Greek phrase here is eikona kai epigraphen, so a more appropriate translation would be “image and inscriptions,” eikona often being used in the context of graven images in the Septuagint. It is also used for the image of God which is in humans. The difference of language is not merely a matter of translation variants. Poor translation of these words has, consciously or unconsciously, allowed Christendom monarchical and imperial loyalties, and Christian subservient nationalism is then seen as a biblical assertion.
Unlike Jesus, the spies do not recognize the nature of the trap until too late. They give the obvious answer: Caesar’s. Jesus’ rebuttal to them has been egregiously misused incessantly to justify the separation of religion and politics. He tells them to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God, i.e., nothing for Caesar. For either one falls into idolatry or one fails to see that even Caesar is made in the image of God to whom all loyalty and homage is owed. There are no two sources of authority for the faithful or just and righteous.
The spies have been foiled and shown to be what they are: status quo hypocrites, and “in the presence of the people” they could not “trap him by what he said” and “amazed by his answer, they became silent.” They would not have been amazed had Jesus shown them the two authorities, as we usually claim, but were amazed that he had shown only one authority outright and rejected the other as having no authority, and yet they could not use his words against him, so they fall silent. This closing reference to the importance of the people underscores that this charade was carried out for the benefit of the people in whose eyes they had to belittle Jesus. Further, it shows the political nous of Jesus and demonstrates that his statement had gained the people’s approval and support. If the people had understood this statement of Jesus the way we do, he would have been in serious trouble, and the spies would have won. They did not see this as simply an appeasing order to give taxes to the government. Such a sentiment was unlikely to be popular no matter how cleverly phrased, as the spies knew. On the contrary, Jesus wins the approval of the people and leaves his enemies speechless and amazed precisely because he has challenged the imperial authority and yet they could not use his words against him.