There is such a thing as an honest answer and there is such a thing as a dishonest answer. An honest answer is an answer that is clear, truthful and straightforward and has nothing to hide. A dishonest answer hedges, twists and turns, slips and slides, lies and never really answers the question. You see it all the time when a politician is questioned. A question that only needs a yes or no, never really gets answered. You end up thinking they not only didn’t answer the question, they answered a question that wasn’t asked of them.
If there is such a thing as an honest answer and a dishonest answer, there is also such a thing as an honest question and a dishonest question. An honest question is one which doesn’t seek to set a trap, which doesn’t set a person up for a fall. An honest question doesn’t seek to deceive in its intention, doesn’t seek to lead someone astray, trip them up, doesn’t seek to cause mischief.
The question in the Gospel sounds and feels like a dishonest question. People are setting a trap for Jesus, something to trip him up, catch him out. The question concerns a hot topic of the day, paying the tax to the occupying powers , the Romans. Is it permissible or is it not to pay it? Hanging on the answer Jesus could lose his life to the Romans if he answers wrongly or lose his credibility among the people if he says its alright to pay.
It could be argued that in this case to a dishonest question a dishonest answer is given. Instead of coming down either way, Jesus seems to sit on the fence. The coin, he says, is clearly owned by Ceaser – give it back to him what he owns, but also give back to God what belongs to God. He doesn’t really answer the question whether it is right to pay the tax or not.!
Many people have pondered over this answer in times gone by, puzzled over its ambiguity . Render unto Ceaser what belongs to Ceaser would seem to leave more questions that it does answers. Is it saying it is right to obey laws which are wrong? Is it saying it is right to silence your conscience and go along with things you know are not right? Is it saying it is right to cooperate rather than resist an oppressor? Does give to Ceaser what belongs to Ceaser an invitation to give no resistance, go along with things, make compromises. It certainly would seem so, but Jesus answer becomes more seditious when it is joined with the following sentence – give back to God what belongs to God! This statement seems to reign in the first statement, not every law will be right, not every custom will be correct, not everything that seems normal is worth following, not every human convention is correct, not all compromises are right, not every leader is to be listened to, not every answer which seems to be right turns out to be right.
Many people have answered the question by drawing a line in the sand – this far Ceaser and no further! Thus far the law of the land and no further! Thus far the compromise and no further! They have answered this by saying there is a higher law, a greater value to be sought, a bigger moral good, a greater point of principle at stake.
As it turns out, as we know, it is not easy to be this person who questions things, stands out from the crowd, goes against the flow. Many people have answered with their lives. But in the end you have your conscience, what is given to you by God - what you think, feel and know to be right.
To be a human being is to be faced with many questions between what is right and wrong and they are fired to us from many directions. In the end we hope to give an honest answer to honest questions.