Remember the story of Jesus turning over the tables at the Temple? Well, those money changers Jesus had disrupted were quickly back in business, because they had to be there for the Temple to function. It was forbidden to use Roman coins for the offerings needed for the rituals. They had to change the money into a coin without that image of Caesar. There was in that issue, two conflicts: that Israel’s law allowed no images, and that Caesar claimed to be divine. Those within hearing distance and the Jewish/Christian community for whom Matthew writes must have smiled or maybe even laughed over the way Jesus traps the trappers. Jesus has no coin. When one of them pulls out the forbidden coin, without a word spoken, Jesus has them cornered.
Many look at this as a precursor to separation of church and state, but that is not the point at all. This is not about being able to compartmentalize what is worldly and what is holy. Rendering to Caesar is a partial fulfillment of a much more basic duty which is rendering to God what is God’s. In other words, the two are not equal. The two renderings are not separate but equal, or two halves of a responsibility. Jesus recognizes that everyone must have a certain concern for the political and social well-being of one’s country, but that well-being is just one part of a responsibility for what is God’s. That loyalty or concern for Caesar or one’s country is rooted in the greater and more important concern and fidelity to God because everything is God’s. There is no intention on the part of Jesus to make them equal. Today, Jesus appeals to us all to look beyond the simplistic politics and black and white legalisms that are represented by Caesar’s coin and realize that we are called to embrace the values centered in a faith that sees the hand of God in all things.
Deacon Jeff Willard