In Jesus’ time, the Jewish people lived under the rule of the Roman Empire. As always happens, a few people resisted the occupying power, a few collaborated, and most kept their heads down and tried to survive. But the people hated paying taxes to the Romans. And, to add insult to injury, the tax had to be paid in Roman coins, which bore the head of the Emperor Tiberius, and an inscription that described him as ‘Son of God’ and ‘High Priest.’ To the Jews, this was blasphemy. There were many among them who longed for a Messiah who would lead an uprising against the Romans.
In this explosive situation, Jesus’ enemies try to set a trap for him. If he tells the people that they should pay taxes to Caesar, they will write him off as a collaborator. But if he tells the people not to pay, he risks being arrested by the Romans as a rebel. What can he say?
Jesus asks to see the coin that is used to pay the tax. The coin bears the image and title of Caesar; so, Jesus says, give it back to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God. His disciples would hear his unspoken message. The coin bears Caesar’s image, but the human person bears the image and likeness of God, as the Book of Genesis tells us. The wealth of the world is controlled by worldly powers, but men and women belong only to God. All of the Caesars of this world will one day answer to a higher power; and they will be judged on the way they treated the people they ruled – people who are precious in God’s eyes.