They sent their disciples, with the Herodians, to say to him: “Teacher, we know that you are an honest man, and that you teach the way of God honestly, and are not afraid of any one; for you pay no regard to a man’s position. Tell us, then, what you think. Are we right in paying taxes to the Emperor, or not?” Perceiving their malice, Jesus answered: “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin with which the tax is paid.” And, when they had brought him a florin, He asked: “Whose head and title are these?” “The Emperor’s,” they answered: on which he said to them: “Then pay to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor, and to God what belongs to God.” (Matthew 22:16-21)
When I was growing up, we went to the Bahamas, before they became an independent nation. To buy anything, I had to learn the old British money system of pounds, shillings and pence (the direct descendant of the system used in the New Testament.) The Bahamas are a long way from England in every sense. However, on every coin and the paper money, there was Queen Elizabeth’s picture. That’s still true in the United Kingdom, Canada, and other countries with a monarch.
The Jews resented the fact that they were under Roman rule, and a constant reminder of that (for Jew and Bahamian alike) was the sovereign’s likeness and title on the coins. So they used this in an attempt to trap Jesus. They saw things in an either/or sense: if he says we pay taxes, the Emperor is first, not God. If he says we don’t, he’s a rebel and the Romans will do away with him.
But asking God how we should honor him can have unpredictable results. Jesus’ answer was based on a simple premise: the Emperor had his role and the earthly power to make it stick. So we must do for the sovereign what we must, and do for God what we must.
Jesus’ message for his brethren was simple: you’re looking for a political solution, but your problem is that your heart’s in the wrong place. Our heart needs to be with God, no matter what we must do for our “sovereign” in this life. When the Jews finally revolted, they issued coinage without the Emperor’s likeness, but they were defeated and the Temple destroyed. Let us not make the same mistake!