In the twenty-first chapter of Matthew, a strange and unusual scene is described. Combining symbols of Hanukah and Passover, Jesus is paraded through Jerusalem with chants of, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matt. 21:9). Jesus was their king come to rescue them from oppression. Little did these people know how differently Jesus would be paraded through those same streets in just two short weeks.
As the events of Passover unfolded, Jesus went to the Temple. The various Jewish sects have conspired in alliance against Jesus. The Pharisees decided to send each group one by one to ask Jesus a question. The questions were carefully crafted in such a fashion so as to humiliate and discredit Jesus no matter how He answered. The Herodians were the first to approach Jesus.
Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away (Matt. 22:15-22).
As the name of this group indicates, the Herodians aligned themselves politically with the house of Herod. Their support of Herod made them supporters of Rome. They were quite thoughtful in the scenario they presented to Jesus. They brought Jesus a legal question intended to create a legal and moral dilemma for the Master teacher.
The Herodians asked Jesus whether or not it was lawful to pay tax to Caesar. What did the Herodians mean by “lawful”? Of course, paying taxes was lawful according to Roman law. However, they did not care what Jesus thought of Roman law. They were interested in what Jesus thought concerning the morality of a Jew paying taxes to Rome. If Jesus said it was lawful to pay taxes to Rome, some might accuse Him of being a Roman sympathizer. If Jesus said it was not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, likely what the Herodians were expecting Jesus to say, He could be accused of insurrection. The Herodians thought no matter how Jesus answered this question, He would be discredited.
Now, the Herodians were right about one part of their analysis of Jesus: He was an impartial teacher of God. Jesus’ impartiality and justice contributed to His assessment of the Herodians: they were hypocrites.
Jesus’ answer to their question was surprising. Jesus asked for a coin. Then, He asked the Herodians whose image and inscription was on the coin. Of course, Caesar’s image was graven on the coin. Roman coins from this period had the image of Emperor Tiberius with the inscription, “Caesar Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus.” After being given a coin, Jesus said to give to Caesar what was his and to God what was His. The answer of Jesus created quite a dilemma for the Herodians. They needed to make a moral judgment as to what belonged to the God they claimed to know and serve. The Herodians were astonished and amazed by Jesus’ response. But, why?
Taking a Closer Look
Perhaps we have not given this teaching the attention it is due. If all we take away from this teaching, is that Christians need to pay their taxes in addition to serving God, we are missing the point. This teaching has nothing whatsoever to do with Christians paying taxes. Yes, Christians must pay their taxes; however, this teaching is deeper.
First of all, this teaching is a warning against idolatry. The coin given to Jesus was a symbol of idolatry. The Herodians were politically motivated people. They had aligned themselves with the rulers of this world. The Herodians had compromised their loyalty and become idolaters. Do you remember the first commandment? The first commandment was a prohibition against idolatry:
“And God spake all these words, saying, I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God…” (Exod. 20:1-5).
This commandment was first for a reason. Without following the first, one could not follow the second or any other command. Much to their surprise, Jesus had exposed the Herodians for having broken the first commandment; having become idolaters.
If we are not careful, we can easily become idolaters. We often elect to serve the gods of this world: the gods of money, sex, and power (1 John 2:16). Like the Herodians, our idolatry is expressed through specific acts of sin (Rom. 1:18-25). If we allowed Jesus to question our hearts, we just might be shocked at what He reveals.
Secondly, this encounter between Jesus and the Herodians teaches us the importance of our image. The image of Caesar was not just on the coin. The image of Caesar was inscribed on the hearts of the Herodians. This had to change. The image they once had on their hearts had to be restored.
We would be wise to consider whose image and inscription is on our hearts. God endowed us with His image (Gen. 1:27). As God’s image bearers, we are to reflect His glory into the world. An idolater cannot reflect the glory of the Creator. Rather than being a symbol of the Giver of Life, idolaters are symbols of death. Thankfully, our image can be restored and renewed by faith in the Messiah. Note how Paul described renewing our image:
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator (Col. 3:5-10).
Lastly, this account of Jesus and the Herodians teaches us an important lesson about order. What did the Herodians owe Caesar? What did the Herodians owe God? The Herodians knew they owed everything to God; regrettably, this truth was not being reflected in their lives. After all, here they stood, rejecting the Savior God had sent to rescue them.
Likewise, we accept that everything belongs to God, but often do not reflect this truth in our lives. How we choose to order our life matters. And, while prioritizing our life is not easy, we must constantly evaluate what is most important to us and our families and sacrifice accordingly.
In conclusion, this encounter with Jesus and the Herodians is deep and rich with meaning. It represents a clash between the Creator and Caesar; the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of Heaven; a clash in which we are in the middle. Who will we choose to worship? Whose image and inscription is on our heart?