The Pharisees and Herodians want to know whether Jesus is in favor of or against paying tribute to the Romans. They seek reasons for accusing him. If Jesus were to say: “You must pay!” they would accuse him, together with the people, of being a friend of the Romans. If Jesus were to say: “You must not pay!” they would accuse him, together with the Roman authorities, of being a subversive.
Jesus is aware of their hypocrisy and asks them; show me a coin. “Whose portrait is this? Whose inscription is this?” They answer: “Caesar’s!” and the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, August son of the divine Augustus, high priest.” Jews consider graven images idolatrous and the inscription blasphemous, so the issue has a substantial religious basis.
Jesus then draws the conclusion: “Pay Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God!” In fact, they already paid Caesar what belonged to Caesar since they used his money to buy and sell and even to pay the tribute to the Temple! But, while not speaking against Caesar, Jesus has trivialized his power: we must return to God what is God’s, and God is the Lord of even the powers of this world. “Pay God what belongs to God”, that is, practice justice and honesty according to the law of God.
This gospel at times has been interpreted in the sense that the Church should not “be involved in political life”, but minds only its salvific mission and faith. But dealing with God’s matters does not mean to mind only the liturgy of the Church, but to be also concerned about men, who are God’s children, and about man’s justice. Pretending the Church does not move from the sacristy, while being deaf, blind, and mute before the moral and human problems and abuses of our time, amounts to stealing from God what belongs to God.