The question posed to Jesus in today's Gospel was a very important one for the Jewish people of his day. The Romans imposed a poll tax on all the nations under their rule. At the time of Jesus the attitude of Jews to the Romans varied a great deal and so did their attitude to this tax.
As you might expect those who opposed Roman rule were against the tax and those who collaborated with the Romans were for it. Now among this latter group were the Herodians, because it was the Romans who kept them in power.
Matthew says that a trap had been set for Jesus. If he agrees with the tax, he will be viewed as a collaborator. If he disagrees with the tax he will be seen as a rebel. Either way he will make enemies for himself.
But Jesus avoids their trap and uses it to give all Christians and us an important lesson about how we live out our Christian Faith in every age and place.
Jesus avoids taking a political stance but rather focuses on the destructive intent behind their question. Matthew leaves us in no doubt that those who ask the question are insincere. Beneath the guise of a sincere attempt to understand how to obey God's Law lies the evil of those who seek to discredit Jesus and so, ultimately, to destroy him.
As we listen to this gospel we will be mistaken if we think it's about paying tax. In this gospel passage Jesus is asking us to reflect on our own sincerity as we seek a Christian response to the challenges and problems in our lives today.
Do we sincerely try to live the demands of the gospel or do we engaged in a charade? Are we just doing the minimum that Church Law requires of us, or are we letting our faith shape the whole of our lives? Are we sometimes like someone looking for loopholes to escape doing what should be done or to continue doing what shouldn't be done?
But there is a deeper aspect to today's encounter. In the gospel, Jesus says give to Caesar what is owed Caesar. The coin used to pay the poll tax bore Caesar's image and name. In saying that we should give to God what belongs to God, Jesus reminds us of the one whose image we bear.
God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them (Gen 1:27)
He reminds us of the one to whom we owe everything.
When St Thomas Aquinas writes about religion, he discusses it as an aspect of justice. And that's very interesting. You might have expected that justice would come under the heading of religion, so that a religious man or woman will be just. But Aquinas puts it the other way around. A just person will be religious.
Why? Well, the answer is very simple. We owe God. That's the bottom line. Everything we possess, all that we are, the very gift of life has been given to us by the God who made us in his own image and so we owe God our thanks, our praise and our devotion. That's the bottom line.
Often people live as if they don't owe anybody anything. As if they were self-made men and women. But in today's gospel, out of a snippet of political crossfire comes the reminder of just how much we owe and to whom.
Caesar was owed that which bears his name and his image, a coin. God is owed that which bears his name and his image, our very selves.