While Jesus was teaching in the temple, opposers tried to put him in an impossible situation by asking whether people should pay taxes. If Jesus said no, his answer would have been deemed seditious and might even have fueled a spirit of revolt among downtrodden people eager to throw off the yoke of Roman oppression. But if Jesus said yes, many would have felt that he condoned the injustices they faced. Jesus’ answer was a masterpiece of balance. He said: “Pay back Caesar’s things to Caesar, but God’s things to God.” (Luke 20:21-25) So his followers have obligations to God and to Caesar—that is, the secular government.
Governments maintain a measure of order. They rightly require citizens to be honest, to pay taxes, and to uphold the law. What example did Jesus set in paying “Caesar’s things to Caesar”? Jesus had been raised by parents who obeyed the law even when doing so was inconvenient. For example, Joseph and his pregnant wife, Mary, traveled some 90 miles [150 km] to Bethlehem when a Roman census decree required it. (Luke 2:1-5) Like them, Jesus was law-abiding, even paying taxes that he did not really owe. (Matthew 17:24-27) He also carefully refrained from overstepping his authority in secular matters. (Luke 12:13, 14) We might say that Jesus respected the machinery of government, although he refused to operate it. What, though, did Jesus mean about paying “God’s things to God”?