The Pharisees took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?
But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription?
They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.
When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.
This story takes place during Holy Week, the days of preparation for the Passover Feast in Jerusalem. Herod was around, as the Gospels tell us he took part in condemning Jesus. Here Herod is in an unlikely alliance with the Pharisees, collaborators lining up with the upholders of the Jewish Law; opposite views of the basis for civil society. Both groups are corrupt, both are tempted to confuse their own interests with those of God’s people, their authority is shaky and in both cases dependent on the Roman Occupation, for or against it, for their prestige. Does either group want a revolution?
Dr Johnson wrote:
The general story of mankind will evince that lawful and settled authority is very seldom resisted when it is well employed…. Men are easily kept obedient to those who have temporal dominion in their hands, till their veneration is dissipated by such wickedness and folly as can neither be defended nor concealed.
The Rambler, No. 50; in “Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765” by James Boswell.
Jesus sketches out the fine line we generally have to follow in respecting lawful authority. It requires grown up thinking, not Punch and Judy politics. But how best to resist indefensible wickedness and folly? It was a question of life and death for tomorrow’s saints, John Fisher and Thomas More.
For deeper and satisfying reflection on this passage, we suggest joining Sister Johanna as she eavesdrops on the discussion that Jesus so elegantly sidesteps, in this post from last May.