“They sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians” to ask Jesus a question about paying taxes to Caesar. Now that’s interesting. The Pharisees and Herodians actually were enemies, opposing parties. Herod was put in power and protected by Rome, and so were his circle of supporters and henchmen. So the Herodians would naturally have approved of paying taxes to Caesar.
The Pharisees were a strict religious party who would have wanted to get rid of the unclean foreign influences of Rome, with its emperor worship and images which they saw as blasphemous – just as on the coin. So they would have opposed paying taxes to Caesar.
The conflict between the Pharisees and the Herodians was a dangerous one. Supporters of Rome were unpopular and could easily get themselves killed by a mob while the Romans weren’t looking. Opponents of Roman rule could be denounced to the authorities as rebels and that would be the end of them.
The Pharisees and Herodians are rivals for power and control, and although they see themselves as opposites they are really mirror images of each other. Their desire is the same. They want power in the way they each understand power – something driven by rivalry, violence and the fear of death.
So they are enemies and yet they become united in trying to trap Jesus. They want him to fall into the trap of coming down on one side or the other, so that the consequences of their own rivalry and violence will devolve on him and not on them.
But Jesus pulls the carpet out from under them with his answer, “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God”.
What belongs to Caesar is not just the money, but the whole way of living in the world defined by rivalry and violence and the fear of death. Jesus says, give it back. Don’t let yourself be defined by it. Give it up.
And give to God what is God’s. To do that is not to portion out the things of this life – this belongs to Caesar, that belongs to God. Rather it is to recognise that everything we are and everything we have we owe to God. It is all God’s free gift. We simply receive life itself and everything that is ours as a gift, given by one we can completely depend on. God’s gift of life is without limit and will not be taken back, because he shares his own life with us in Jesus. And when we learn to receive life as a gift there is no longer any room for rivalry or fear.
Lent begins tomorrow. It is a season of living more simply, more sparingly, so that we can learn once again to receive our life simply as God’s gift.
This season of penitence and training is another opportunity to give back, to unlearn, Caesar’s way of living, the way of this world defined by rivalry and the fear of death.
Instead, our eyes turn towards the death and resurrection of Christ so that we can give to God what is God’s, that is, everything we are and we have. For it is in relinquishing those human claims of possession and rivalry and control that we are able to receive the life that God lives. It is in giving up everything to God that we receive everything from him.