Certainty In Uncertain Times: Luke 20:20-26 – Giving Ourselves to God

Grace For The Journey

We are making our way, verse-by-verse, through the Gospel of Luke.  We left off last time at verse 19 and so we will pick up right there at verse 20 and then go through verse 26.  The background here is this escalating tension between Jesus and the religious leaders of His day.  The religious leaders – who are not believers in Christ, who do not accept that He is the Messiah – these leaders are threatened by Christ and convicted by His teachings.

We looked last time at their questioning Jesus about His authority.  They did not like the way Jesus had “come into town,” so to speak, riding on a donkey, cleansing the temple, and teaching with authority.  They asked Him about His authority and Jesus tells a parable in verses 9-18 about the wicked vinedressers.  In the telling of the parable Jesus, in essence says, “My authority comes from the Heavenly Father, the One Who sent Me and refers to Me as, “The Beloved Son of God.”  Jesus goes on in the parable and pronounces a judgment upon those who reject Him, those like the religious leaders.

We left off at verse 19 where Luke writes that the chief priests and scribes connect the dots and figure out that Jesus “had spoken the parable against them.”  They are royally ticked off and they are going to do whatever they can to get Jesus out of the picture, to get Him arrested, to get Him carried away, to get Him killed.

This business of the chief priests and the scribes is a devilish attempt.  Luke tells us in verse 20 that they “watched” Jesus and they “sent spies who pretended to be righteous, that they might seize on His words,” that is, that they might trap Jesus, get Him to say something incriminating in order to turn Him over to the authorities.  They are trying to get Jesus to trip over His words.   

Have you ever tripped over your words?  If you have ever been in a high-pressured situation, like testifying in court, you know how easy it is to get your words mixed up.  Sometimes it is the questioners themselves who hope to get you all mixed up.  You are asked a loaded question like the infamously classic, “Have you stopped beating your wife?”  Well, how are you going to answer that?!  It is a loaded question.  Like loaded dice, the question comes with a predictable outcome.  The questions assume a premise.  In this case, the premise is, “You have been in the practice of beating your wife.”   The question, “Have you stopped beating your wife” is a trap.  If you say, “Yes” or “No,” you admit to beating your wife.

Other examples of loaded questions:

  • “Have you stopped cheating on your taxes?”  What does that question assume?  You have been cheating.
  • “Do you enjoy taking advantage of your position as supervisor?”
  • A guy interviewing you for a job says, “Can you appreciate this wonderful opportunity we are making available to you?”
  • A teacher says, “Aren’t you ashamed of the little effort you are making in this class?”
  • A borderline loaded question comes from the cult classic film, “Napoleon Dynamite,” where Napoleon, referring to Deb’s milk at school says, “I see you’re drinking 1%. Is that ’cause you think you’re fat? ‘Cause you’re not. You could be drinking whole if you wanted to.” 

That question doesn’t have anything to do with this, I just wanted to share it cause I like that movie and have a weird sense of humor.

On what was probably Tuesday or Wednesday of the week leading up to His crucifixion, Jesus was confronted by a group of Pharisees and Herodians and asked a question about one of the most controversial issues of the day.  You see how these religious leaders were “out to get” Jesus? They set out to trap Him, to “seize on His words,” to catch Him.  Again, they realized that Jesus had spoken the parable of the wicked vinedressers “against them” (verse 19), so they now attempt to trap Jesus in His words so they can turn Him over to the authority of the governor, the governor being Pontius Pilate.

That is the background for these few short verses in our study today.  The religious leaders ask Jesus something of a loaded question, a question that cannot really be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” and we will study that question this morning.  We will make our way through these verses and then I will give you a few take-home principles for to learn and live by.

Verse 21 says, “Then they asked Him, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that You say and teach rightly, and You do not show personal favoritism, but teach the way of God in truth.”  Such pretense!  Such flattery!  They are acting like they really appreciate Jesus.  What they say is true.  They speak truth here.  That Jesus spoke and taught truth is a true statement.  Jesus did, in fact, “teach rightly.”  In fact, the Greek word there is the word “orthos,” the Greek prefix for “straight,” as in “orthodontics (straightening the teeth).”  It is teaching that which is “straight” and “right.”  The other thing they said in verse 21 that was also true is the statement: “You do not show personal favoritism.”  Again, true!  The idea is, “You do not act one way to one person and another way to another person.  You treat everyone the same.”

But this is all a sham.  They are flattering Jesus.  This is flattery, pure and simple.  I think it is true, what has been said . . .

If gossip is saying behind a person’s back

What you would never say to his face,

Then flattery is saying to a person’s face

What you would never say behind his back.

The Bible says in Proverbs 29:5, “Whoever flatters his neighbor is spreading a net for his feet.”  Here comes the net, a loaded question, in verse 22, “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar (Tiberius) or not?”

They want a “yes” or “no.”  If Jesus said, “No, it is not lawful,” then the religious leaders could accuse Jesus of sedition and could get Him into big-time trouble with the Roman authorities.  He would be arrested and carried away.  On the other hand, if Jesus says, “Yes, of course it is well and good to pay taxes to Caesar,” the religious leaders know that Jesus’ followers will not take too kindly to that response because they hated this poll tax that had been unfairly imposed upon them by the Romans.  This was an annual tax on their houses and land, other possessions.  The Jews despised the idea of having to pay tribute to their ungodly, pagan Roman oppressors.

They had hoped to trap Jesus by forcing Him to answer “yes” or “no.”  Now look: They cannot outsmart the Son of God!  In verse 23 it tells us, “But He perceived their craftiness, and said to them, ‘Why do you test Me?’”  The word for “craftiness” here is the same word used by Paul in 2 Corinthians 11:3 to describe Satan’s “craftiness” in deceiving Eve in the Garden of Eden.  Jesus may have asked, “Why are you guys acting like Satan?!”  Jesus knew their thoughts (see also Luke 5:22 and Luke 6:8; also compare Luke 7:39-40).  Jesus knows all things.  He is God-in-the-flesh.

Now, watch this classic response – He is not going to answer with a quick “yes” or “no.”  What does He do?  Verse 24 tells us Jesus says, “Show Me a denarius. Whose image and inscription does it have?” ¶ They answered and said, ‘Caesar’s.’”  The denarius was the common Roman coin in Jesus’ day.  One denarius was the usual pay for one day’s work.  On one side of the denarius is the image of Caesar.  In Jesus’ day the Caesar was Tiberius.  Tiberius’s image was on the coin and on that same side of the coin is a phrase that reads, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.” To have one of these coins in the pocket was like having a small idol in the pocket.

Jesus has them get out a coin. That they had one in their pockets or pouches showed that they were not opposed to carrying such a thing around, even if it had this blasphemous inscription on it.  It is pretty obvious that they needed the coin to buy, sell, and so forth.  Jesus is doing the questioning now.  Verses 25-26 tells us, “And He said to them, ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’  But they could not catch Him in His words in the presence of the people. And they marveled at His answer and kept silent.”  In our day the value of a person’s entire political career often hinges on a hastily spoken soundbite absurdly taken out of context and replayed endlessly at full volume.  But this “soundbite” of Jesus is just perfect.  It cannot be improved upon! 

Jesus says, “Look, the coin represents the tribute that you are to give to Caesar.  It is a reasonable expectation of his that you give.  You live here, after all, and you benefit from the Roman government, so Caesar is right in demanding this tax from you.”  Jesus does not explain why Caesar has this authority.  Paul and Peter will do this later . . .

Romans 13:1-7 – “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.  Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.  For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil.  Do you want to be unafraid of the authority?  Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.  For he is God’s minister to you for good.  But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.  Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake.  For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing.  Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor.”

1 Peter 2:13-17 – “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good.  For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men – as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God.  Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.”

We are to obey the governing authorities.  We are not to disobey unless we are being forced to do something against Scripture, such was the case with Peter in Acts 5:29 when they were told to stop telling people about Jesus, “But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: “We ought to obey God rather than men.”

The last part of verse 26 tells us, “But they could not catch Him in His words in the presence of the people. And they marveled at His answer and kept silent.”   There is a break in the conversation now as these religious leaders marveled at His answer and kept silent.  The one who is wiser than Solomon (Luke 11:31) has again silenced the opposition!

Now, let’s look a little more closely at this statement of our Lord’s in verse 25, “Render (or Give) therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  The denarius belonged to Caesar because it bore his image.   We belong to God because we bear HIS image (Genesis 1:27).  While what Jesus says is important insofar as rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s, He gives a much more important command in saying that every one of us – we who bear God’s image and likeness – must give ourselves go God.  Caesar and God are not equals.  What we give to God is more important than what we give to Caesar.  Yet so many Christians live their lives as though Caesar is more important than God!

With that thought, here are take-home principles for us to live by . . .

There are three lessons I immediately see from this passage which are applicable to us today.

Let’s examine each of these . . .

1) Awareness.

Jesus knew what the Herodians and Pharisees were up to.  Luke tells us that Jesus perceived their wickedness, and Matthew says Jesus called them “hypocrites,” (Matthew 22:18) and in a tone of rebuke, publicly challenged them to explain why they were tempting him.  When confronted with a challenge, including (and perhaps especially) when people attack us or try to “trap” us (as the Herodians and Pharisees were trying to do with Jesus), it is important that we have the awareness to know what’s going on.

Too often, we react emotionally rather than respond thoughtfully.  Awareness begins with a strong prayer life and a sensitivity to the spiritual aspects of life. We are, as the Bible tells us, engaged in spiritual warfare, wrestling “not against flesh and blood,” but rather against Satan and his forces of darkness (Ephesians 6:12).  It is important that we understand the Enemy will use circumstances and people to trip us up, slow us down, discourage us, or defeat us.  We must also be aware of the people around us and the context in which we live and operate.

This is what Jesus was getting at when He said to His disciples: “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” (Matthew 10:16)  This need for awareness is also bolstered by repeated biblical admonitions toward wisdom and discernment in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.

In Jesus’ case, He knew that, while the Pharisees and Herodians had little in common, one of the things they did have in common was they saw Him as a threat. As the old saying goes: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”  To be clear, the Herodians and Pharisees were cultural and political enemies.  The Pharisees were strict adherents of Jewish laws and traditions, and bristled at both the Herodian dynasty as well as Roman occupation.

The Herodians were members or supporters of King Herod’s family and dynasty. Herod was of course not a Jew, but an Edomite who owed his rule to Rome.  He was a merciless, wicked, and paranoid king responsible for great suffering in the kingdom. While Herod himself was dead by the time of Jesus, his descendants still ruled the region.  The Herodians were those Jews aligned with Herod’s family and who compromised and curried favor with Rome and were tied to and benefited from the political, social, and economic interests of the region.  This is why Jesus called the Pharisees “hypocrites.” They were casting aside their principles in order to gang up on Him.

Jesus was also aware that a straightforward “yes” or “no” answer to their question would simply play into their hands.  If He affirmed paying taxes to Caesar, then He would lose favor with the people and be associated with their Roman occupiers and the corrupt Herodians. On the other hand, if He said “no,” He would be subject to arrest by Roman authorities for sedition.

Quite often, Christians find themselves in similar no-win dilemmas today – in politics, in business, on social media, at family gatherings, and in everyday conversations.  Like Jesus, we need to strive to RISE ABOVE the fray.

This leads us to the second lesson . . .

2) Altitude.

Jesus’ answer lifts the very nature of the conversation to a whole new level.  He does not play their game.  He refuses to answer on their terms.  He refuses to let Himself be a pawn on their board or to easily play into their trap.  Note that the Pharisees and Herodians initiate this conversation.  They do so with a challenge.  Jesus responds by making clear He know what they’re up to by asking why they are tempting Him. And then.

Jesus establishes Himself as the leader in this exchange by getting them to respond to His question – a question that was obviously rhetorical, since Jesus (even in His incarnate humanity) would have known Roman coinage bears the image of the Roman emperor.  Getting them to say “Caesar” also sets up the statement that Jesus wants to make. They are now responding to Him and waiting on His answer. What is more, they have now said the name “Caesar” themselves, which trained teachers and public speakers know, will further “impact” what Jesus will say.  When a teacher, speaker, counselor, or coach echoes back the same words used by the student or listener, it sharpens the connection and primes the brain for deeper learning.

In case you’re missing my point about mirroring back words for greater impact, had the Pharisees and Herodians said “Tiberius” (who was the Roman Emperor at the time), Jesus would have almost certainly said, “Give to Tiberius what belongs to Tiberius and give to God what belongs to God.”  Jesus is the Master Teacher.  Looking through the Gospels, we can learn a great deal of how Jesus connected with His audiences – and how we can learn a thing or two from His example. Jesus’ answer worked, because rather than score a victory, His accusers “marveled at His answer and kept silent” (Luke 20:26). 

Our goal in human interaction, especially when we feel cornered or trapped, should be to provoke thought. Leave your readers or listeners with something to think on, to mull over, and to reflect on. Jesus did this routinely and masterfully.

Most importantly . . .

By answering them at a higher level,

Jesus transformed an attempt to trap Him

Into a teaching point that has stood

For 2000 years as part of recorded Scripture.

He took a question about taxes and answered with a principle much broader in scope.

And that leads us to the final lesson, which is from the teaching itself . . .

3) Attitude.

Jesus tells us the exact ATTITUDE we are supposed to have when it comes to our interactions with civil authorities.   It is the same attitude we should have when it comes to our interaction with God.  It is just that God’s scope is so much greater than anything on this earth and in this life.

But before we get to what we owe God (everything), let’s look at what we owe Caesar.  If you buy a house, you cannot get mad when the mortgage comes due. You need to honor that mortgage.  Same with buying a car.  You need to pay for that car – either with one big check or with payments over time.  If you go to work for XYZ, Inc, you need to work the hours you agreed to work, fulfill the duties you agreed to take on, and cooperate with company management.   

Likewise, if a first century citizen of Jerusalem chose to remain living in Jerusalem, and thus take advantage of all the benefits and privileges of living under the governing structure of that day, then such a citizen – to be consistent with his choice – should not begrudge paying taxes or cooperating with the civil authorities.  This is what Peter is getting at when he says we should “submit to every ordinance of man” (1 Peter 2:13) and “honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17). It is what Paul means when he tells us to “subject unto the higher powers” (Romans 13:1), and “pay tribute” (Romans 13:6).  Paul really drives it home when he writes: “Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.” (Romans 13:7)

Jesus, Peter, and Paul would all agree with the following statement . . .

If you’re going to live under Roman rule,

Then willingly cooperate with

Roman laws, taxes, and customs.

The only times we are allowed or expected to disobey or rebel against civil authorities is when God tells us to do so (Exodus 1-2, Acts 5:29, Daniel 2:21, Daniel 3, Daniel 6).

Civil government plays a role in this fallen world, and we as God’s people are expected to cooperate with that role.

As I write this, I am sitting in my office at church.  My children and grandchildren attend public schools. I am protected and served by the local police and fire departments. If a medical emergency happened, I can call 911, and an ambulance would come my way. The roads I drive on are maintained at taxpayer expense. The country in which I live is protected by an intelligence network, by national security measures, and by the men and women of our armed forces.  I can go on.  The fact is, I live in a stable, peaceful, family-friendly community in the freest, most prosperous nation in world history.  It is not too much to ask that I be a respectful, tax-paying, and law-abiding citizen.

I realize the United States is not perfect, and frankly I believe God did call upon many of His followers to engage in civil disobedience during some of the civil rights struggles in our nation’s history.  But, as a general rule, we should cooperate willingly with the society in which we live.  That is Jesus’ lesson in Matthew 22:21.

Of course, Jesus does not leave it there.  He does not stop with Caesar.  He adds that we should “give to God what belongs to God.” Well, what belongs to God?

Answer . . . Everything

God is sovereign over this entire universe.   Everything is under His authority and power. And that includes you and me.  Caesar Tiberius had his image inscribed on Roman coinage to assert his authority over the Roman economy.  When anyone transacted business in Rome, it was a reminder that they were conducting business in Caesar’s empire. (Caesar was the state).

Well, whose inscription is on us?  Answer: God Himself.  We are made in the image of God, and therefore we are God’s.  God owns this entire cosmos, and He owns Heaven. And He owns you and me.  He owns everyone and everything, and He is entitled to everyone and everything.

There are some things to which Caesar is not entitled – like, for example, worship.  But God is entitled to everything.  We owe Him our gratitude, our full allegiance, and our very lives.   By giving these things to Him willingly, we show Him our love.

And this is the crux of the lesson . . .

Whatever life may throw at us – whenever enemies may come against us – we must always remember that we are here to serve God.  And everything we do or say should be to advance His kingdom and to bring honor and glory to Him.  He alone is worthy of all that we have.

This is God’s Word …

This is Grace for your Journey …

Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!

Pastor Terry

Ephesians 4:7 – “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”

Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

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