People have used the story of Jesus and the tax question as a way to try to convince me to support government welfare. For me, at least, they are barking up the wrong tree.
If you want to explore the subject a bit more, Wikipedia has a pretty good article on the story that includes the context and the various interpretations of the story.
The most important thing to understand about the story is that the question, “Should we pay taxes to Caesar?” was not asked sincerely. The men who asked it were not trying to find out Jesus’ opinion of taxation; they were trying to verbally trap him.
Jesus’ enemies kept watching him closely, because they wanted to hand him over to the Roman governor. So they sent some men who pretended to be good. But they were really spies trying to catch Jesus saying something wrong. (Luke 20:20, CEV)
Jesus’ answer, therefore, should not necessarily be taken as a categorical answer on whether it is right for government to tax people or on whether it is right to comply. Much less is it proof that Jesus expected the governmetn to take care of the needy. (I agree that people are obligted to pay taxes, but it does no follow from that that the government is obliged to redistribute money.) Jesus’ answer was actually a clever way to dodge the trap that was set for him.
Jesus knew that they were trying to trick him. So he told them, . . . (Luke 20:23, CEV)
The trap was to work like this: If Jesus said that the Jews should refuse to pay taxes, then his opponents could accuse him of rebellion and turn him over to the Roman authorities. If he said that they should pay them, then the people, who resented Roman occupation and their taxes, would turn against Jesus.
“Show me a coin.” Then he asked, “Whose picture and name are on it?” “The Emperor’s,” they answered. Then he told them, “Give the Emperor what belongs to him and give God what belongs to God.” (Luke 20:24-25, CEV)
As he often did, Jesus turned the trap around on them, exposing them as hypocrites. By asking them to show him a Roman coin, he was pointing out that they used Roman money, and if you use Roman money, then you are obligated to pay Roman taxes. In addition, the image of Caesar on the coin was considered idolatry to the Jews; therefore, Jesus showed that the Jewish leaders were willing to compromise their beliefs for financial security.
The Jewish leaders had a love-hate relationship with the Roman government. They were unhappy that their country was under the rule of another. However, they had worked out deals with the Romans in order to retain religious freedom for Jewish people and a semblance of power for themselves. By retaining their positions of religious authority and limited civil authority, they were able to make a great deal of money as well as keep their power. Jesus was exposing the embarrassing fact that they were financially in league with their Roman oppressors at the same time they supposedly opposed them on religious and political grounds.
Jesus’ question has very little to do with whether or not citizens should pay taxes to their legitimate government leaders. Rather, it has to do with what citizens should do when an outside power is ruling and oppressing them. Jesus’ answer seems to be, “If you are going to cooperate with the occupying force by accepting their currency, then cooperate with them fully. Don’t pretend to be against them on the one hand, but use the benefits that they provide on the other hand.”
The second half of Jesus’ statement is the most stinging. Since he is talking about the image stamped on the coin in the first half, he is talking about the “image” stamped on people in the second half. In the book of Genesis it says that human beings were made in the “image” of God. So Jesus is saying, “You belong to God, because his image is stamped on you. Therefore, give yourselves to God and don’t fret about the demands of the Emperor.”
So, if you want to use this story to tell me to pay taxes, which I do, by the way, then I will use it to tell you to commit your life, body and soul, to God. That is Jesus’s central message in it. Are you doing that? Are you consecrated to God?
Jesus’ command implies that the Jewish leaders were not already giving to God what belonged to God, that is, themselves, and apparently this would have rung true with the common people and endeared Jesus to them even more than before. Thus, an attempt by Jesus’s enemies to poison the people’s minds toward Jesus ended up making Him even more popular. His implied rebuke, on top of exposing their hypocritical ties to Rome, left the Jewish leaders bewildered and prompted them to slink away. They saw that they were in the presence of a superior person, and they were embarrassed and ashamed. They were not ready to do as he said and give themselves to God.