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The vineyard parable that Jesus told in the temple enraged the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees. Luke 20:19 says,
19 And the scribes and the chief priests tried to lay hands on Him that very hour, and they feared the people; for they understood that He spoke this parable against them.
Jesus was gaining more support each day. The majority of the people believed Him to be a prophet (Matthew 21:46), and no doubt every discussion was about whether or not He was also the Messiah. As long as the priests did nothing to stop Him, the momentum was in His favor that the people would crown Him at Passover, even as the kings of ancient Judah had been formally crowned on that day since David.
There is no doubt that the priests were thoroughly alarmed at the prospect that their greatest critic might become their king. Jesus had never hidden His differences with them, and so in their view the established order was in danger of being overthrown. But because the people were excited that such a miracle worker might appear—a messiah who was expected to overthrow Rome by such power from heaven—the chief priests seemed powerless to stop the coronation.
Their only hope lay in Rome. Though they hated the Roman government and its rule over Judea, they understood that only Rome could now save them from the Messiah. No doubt they remembered how false messiahs from the past had been executed by the Romans and how all rebellions had been put down. So they needed to find a way to accuse Jesus before the Roman government. Luke 20:20 says,
20 And they watched Him, and sent spies who pretended to be righteous, in order that they might catch Him in some statement, so as to deliver Him up to the rule and the authority of the governor.
Their spies pretended to be genuine inquirers, but their questions were designed to trap Jesus so that either answer might discredit Him.
Luke 20:21, 22 says,
21 And they questioned Him, saying, “Teacher, we know that You speak and teach correctly, and You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth. 22 Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”
They were clever enough to agree that Jesus taught the truth. More than that, they said, He taught the truth with impartiality. That, of course, was the distinguishing viewpoint that made Jesus’ teaching different from most other rabbis, including the chief priests. The temple had been in control of the School of Shammai all of Jesus’ earthly life, and that school of thought chafed at Roman rule.
The Jewish Encyclopedia (1904 ed.) says in Vol. III, p. 115, 116,
“The Shammaites, on the contrary, were intensely patriotic, and would not bow to foreign rule. They advocated the interdiction of any and all intercourse with those who either were Romans or in any way contributed toward the furtherance of Roman power or influences….
“Their religious austerity, combined with their hatred of the heathen Romans, naturally aroused the sympathies of the fanatic league [i.e., the Zealots], and as the Hillelites became powerless to stem the public indignation, the Shammaites gained the upper hand in all disputes affecting their country’s oppressors. Bitter feelings were consequently engendered between the schools; and it appears that even in public worship they would no longer unite under one roof… These feelings grew apace, until toward the last days of Jerusalem’s struggle they broke out with great fury.
After the destruction of Jerusalem, we are told, “the characteristics of the Hillelites once more gained the ascendency. All disputed points were brought up for review… and in nearly every case the opinion of the Hillelites prevailed.”
The hypocrisy of the chief priests, then, was evident in that they themselves were classed by Jeremiah as “evil figs” for refusing to submit to the judgment of God. Like their spiritual predecessors, who refused to submit to Babylon rule as the prophet had instructed them (Jer. 27:12), the chief priests of the School of Shammai refused to submit to Rome.
They believed that God’s will was for them to be independent so that they might “establish the Kingdom.” No doubt they supported their view by using the word of God that had been given to Moses. In Exodus 7:16 God had told Moses to tell Pharaoh, “Let My people go, that they may serve Me.” The argument was that Israel could not truly serve God while under the rule of other nations.
While that argument appeared to have merit, it was equally true that if Israel refused to be obedient, God vowed to put the nation under foreign rule. Deut. 28:36 says,
36 The Lord will bring you and your king, whom you shall set over you, to a nation which neither you nor your fathers have known, and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone.
Verse 48 says also, “you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord shall send against you.” These tribulation laws were actually fulfilled in the days of Jeremiah, when God raised up Babylon and gave them dominion over Judah and Jerusalem on account of their hypocritical religion that had pretended to follow the law of God, but which in reality followed the traditions of men (incorrect understanding and application of the law).
Hence, Jer. 7:11 indicts the nation and even the temple itself, calling it “a den of robbers.” The next verses show that God intended to cast out Judah even as He had cast out Ephraim a century earlier (Jer. 7:15). The prophet gives the overthrow of Shiloh as the legal precedent, when that priestly city was overthrown in the days of Eli. At the same time the glory of God departed from that place and never returned (1 Sam. 4:21; Psalm 78:59, 60, 67, 68).
For the identical reason, Jeremiah says, God was to abandon (earthly) Jerusalem. The removal of God’s presence began in Ezekiel 11:23 and ended with Jesus’ ascension in Acts 1:9.
When God pronounced judgment, there were some who submitted to that judgment, but the majority did not believe the prophet’s word. Hence, they decided to fight the army of Babylon, thereby classifying themselves as “evil figs.” By contrast, the “good figs” were those who submitted and went into captivity (Jer. 24:5).
In Jesus’ day, the Shammaite School submitted to Rome only grudgingly, and they searched for any opportunity to revolt. In so doing, they were refusing to submit to God Himself, who had raised up the four beast empires and had given them the Dominion Mandate which, at one time, had been held by the tribe of Judah and the seed of David.
This was the situation that existed during the time of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus Himself submitted to the Romans and did not blame them for ruling Jerusalem. So the hypocritical spy was sent to Jesus, and he pretended to agree with Jesus’ teaching—especially His teaching about the law of impartiality in regard to the Romans.
That is the context of the question in Luke 20:22, “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” If Jesus had answered that it was not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, the priests would have been accused Him of revolting against Rome. If Jesus had answered that it was indeed lawful to pay taxes, they would have discredited Him as a collaborator with Rome, along with all of the despised publicans and sinners.
Luke 20:23 says,
23 But He detected their trickery [panourgia] and said to them…
The Greek word, panourgia, means “craftiness, cunning.” It is the word unique to Luke and Paul, which they employed in 1 Cor. 3:19; 2 Cor. 4:2, and 11:3; and Eph. 4:14.
Paul said in 1 Cor. 3:19,
19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written, “He is the one who catches the wise in their craftiness” [panourgia].
This comes from Job 5:12, 13, which says,
12 He frustrates the plotting of the shrewd, so that their hands cannot attain success. 13 He captures the wise by their own shrewdness and the advice of the cunning is quickly thwarted.
The type of craftiness (or shrewdness) shown by the flattering spy was the very method that Paul himself had renounced when he was converted from his old manner of life. 2 Cor. 4:2 says,
2 But we have renounced the things hidden because of shame, not walking in craftiness [panourgia] or adulterating the word of God, but by the manifestation of truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.
Jesus did not answer the spy’s question directly, but responded with a question of His own. Luke 20:24-26 says,
24 “Show Me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” And they said, “Caesar’s.” 25 And He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 26 And they were unable to catch Him in a saying in the presence of the people; and marveling at His answer, they became silent.
In essence, Jesus’ answer was based on the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15). Render to all men what is due to them. In fact, this shows the foolishness of those who teach that this commandment only applies to good people or to those of our own religious belief. There are religions and denominations that believe it is permitted to steal from unbelievers or infidels. Jesus’ words prove otherwise, for if one is required to render to Caesar what is his, it is clear that we are to recognize the property rights of all men and nations.
Caesar’s inscription proved his ownership of the money (denarius) that the people were using throughout the empire. It was the equivalent of a day’s wage.
The implication is that one must discern what one owes God and what one owes Caesar. To deprive God of what is due to Him robs God (Mal. 3:8). To deprive Caesar of what is due to Him robs Caesar.
The Shammaite School of thought presumed that God wanted Judea to be independent so that they could truly serve God. They did not believe the word of God given to Moses, Jeremiah, and Daniel, telling them the consequences of violating God’s covenant. Jesus lived in the time of Rome’s dominion, which was fully authorized by God. Even earlier in Israel’s history, whenever they violated the covenant, God raised up other nations and placed them over Israel. In those times, Israel was required to pay tribute (taxes) to those oppressors (Judges 3:15-18). It was a large part of the divine judgment.
But Jesus’ short answer defused the situation without putting Him into a position where He might be accused of being a collaborator with Rome. The spies were put to silence. The chief priests would have to find another way to get rid of Him.