Perceiving that Jesus told the parable of the tenants to declare the failures of the Jewish leaders, these same leaders sought immediately “to lay hands on” our Lord, as we read in today’s passage. They wanted to have Him arrested and killed, yet Jesus was so popular with the common people that they did not come against Him directly. They feared the uproar if they were to seize Him openly (Luke 20:19).
Instead, the leaders chose to approach Jesus more craftily, sending spies who would question Him and attempt to get Him to say something that could be used to move the Roman governor to prosecute Him. Luke 20:20–21 tells us that these spies pretended to be sincere, prefacing their question with words of praise: “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God.” They tried to get Jesus to let down His guard, as it were, by praising Him for His forthright commitment to the truth and refusal to let His audience pressure Him into changing His teaching. In saying this, of course, the spies unwittingly said nothing but the truth, for Jesus spoke only the words that His Father gave Him, and God gives only words of absolute truth (John 12:44–50; see Heb. 6:18).
The spies asked Jesus whether it was lawful to pay “tribute” to Caesar (Luke 20:22). This refers to a poll tax that the Jews had to pay directly to the Roman authorities, not tariffs and other taxes collected by local tax collectors. The Jews especially hated to pay the poll tax to Caesar, since it reminded them of the Roman emperor’s rule over them. Their question was designed to make the Jewish leaders win either way. If Jesus said that it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, the Jewish people would reject Him, and if He said that it was unlawful, the Roman authorities could arrest Him for fomenting rebellion.
Understanding their trickery, Jesus asked to see a denarius, the coin used to pay the tax. This coin had a picture of Caesar on it, and the fact that the representatives of the Jewish leadership were carrying it shows that they already believed that one could be a good Jew and pay taxes to the secular authorities. Jesus, refusing to be trapped by their question, then told them to give to Caesar what he is due and to God what He is due (vv. 23–26). His answer teaches us that not everything belongs to the state. Some things belong only to God, and we can never give to the state what we owe to our Creator.