“Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and give to God what is God’s.” (Matthew 22:18-21)

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. "Teacher," they said, "we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?" But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, "You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax." They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, "Whose image is this? And whose inscription?" "Caesar's," they replied. Then he said to them, "So give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away. (Matthew 22:15-22)

Why were they trying to trap Jesus?

It was obvious to Jesus that they were trying to get Jesus to say they didn't have to pay taxes. This would put Jesus in legal jeopardy with the Romans.

But Jesus didn't fall for this trap. He stated clearly that the taxes incurred by the government should still be paid. This in particular means that Jesus was agreeing that taxes should be due to the Romans according to their occupation of Judea.

This also indicates that Jesus was not part of the Zealots, who were secretly plotting the Jewish rebellion against the Romans, and were rejecting paying taxes to the Romans.

Separating religion and government

By this instruction, Jesus laid down a premise that is theoretically prescribed to by a number of national constitutions in the world, most particularly the United States. This proclaims the premise that the government should maintain a separation from religious activity. The principle is otherwise called, "separation of church and state."

Such a premise is important because it achieves one of the critical aspects of religious activity: That each of us has the freedom to worship God or not.

Such a freedom is underscored by the central tenet of love for God: That love must be given freely. A person cannot be forced to love.

A person may be forced to be put into the position or forced into a ritual that represents worship. But no one can be forced to truly worship. Just as no one can be forced to love someone.

Denying the fanatics

This basic principle - the freedom to worship and love God - is the underlying principle that Jesus was ascribing to with his interaction with the Pharisees about taxes. By separating the worship of God from the paying of taxes, Jesus was also stating that a person could theoretically worship God and still be a good citizen of the government.

This also means the converse: That a person could be a good citizen of the government and not worship God.

Yet as we've seen in the history of so many governments through the centuries, many rulers have used their governmental authority to try to deny people of the freedom to worship God or not.

This form of fanaticism has been achieved on both sides: There have been governments who have banned certain religions. And there have been governments that discouraged every religion. Furthermore, there have been governments that have ascribed a particular religious faith and forced citizens to become members of that religion.

These forms of fanaticism are being condemned by Jesus with his statements to the Pharisees about paying taxes. Jesus is not just proving that he wasn't a fanatic. He is also telling us that everyone has the freedom to accept his teachings and worship God or not.

In the world but not of the world

Jesus’ answer also describes the consciousness of how we can live practically within the physical world.

Jesus is stating that we don't have to reject civilized society. We can follow the rules of society and the government. We can thus live in the world without being of the world.

This is described better as detachment. One can utilize money and pay taxes and abide by the rules put forth by society.

The central tenet of Jesus' primary teachings relates to loving God and serving God. Yet we can work within the rules of society and still have the spiritual freedom to focus on achieving love for God.

This is why the central instruction of both Jesus and Moses was:

“ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment.” (Matt. 22:37-38 and Deut. 6:5)

Religion and money

It is interesting that the issue of Jesus' time was paying taxes, because of how little money Jesus and his followers generally had. Today, ironically, many sectarian institutions have turned their focus towards managing the great wealth they have received from the donations of their followers.

In the name of Jesus, these institutions and their officials have traded in the teachings of Jesus for great wealth. They have focused their followers upon ritual ceremonies while they reap the financial rewards off the backs of many poor people who can barely afford a small tithing.

Why do churches need so much money? They need money to pay their officials and professional teachers who earn salaries for their teachings along with lavish living quarters. They see their occupations as a means of salary and luxury, turning the giving of others into a business.

The grotesque commercialism of 'miracles' is another example, with some places where supposed miracles took place charging people to see a special cross or an image on a wall that looks like the Virgin Mary. Or consider the selling of a ten-year-old sandwich that supposedly maintains the shape of the Virgin Mary on Ebay for $28,000. This is not only grotesque: it offends the very nature of love of God.

Is this the example set by Jesus? Did Jesus gain a salary for his teachings so that he could live in opulence? Did he charge people to come hear him speak, or pass around a money plate so people could pay him for his lectures? Surely Jesus could have organized a big temple and organizational structure if he wanted to. He could have had those crowds that gathered to hear him speak give him money or come work for him.

But Jesus' objective was not to make money. He wanted everyone to be able to freely here the Truth, without obligation.

Jesus' objective was to ask us to learn to love and serve God.

Jesus railed against the use of God's place of worship as a place of commercialism. He angrily turned over tables in the market on the temple grounds, saying:
"How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!" (John 2:16).

In other words, just as taxes are to be paid to the government in power, if a place of worship is offered to God, then that place belongs to God. It should not be turned into a marketplace to earn money. In the same way, service to the Supreme Being cannot be a paid, professional position.