Scots Church Adelaide
A Smart Answer and a Wise Word

Bible: Matthew 22:15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?' But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.' And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?' They answered, ‘The emperor's.' Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's.' When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

Take One:
The drama in Matthew' s Jerusalem is getting more serious. The Pharisees and the Herodians are natural enemies. Here we see them combining; Jesus is clearly seen as a bigger threat than their own partisan positions. They come up with a neat ploy to trap him. The style of debate here is not truth seeking, it's trap making. The game strategy is to be the first one to ask the impossible question. If you pay the tax you upset the Jewish purists; if you don't, you get into trouble with the Romans. It's the old "When did you stop pilfering the office stationary?" question.

Effectively, Jesus answers, "I never started."

The answer works because it sidesteps the trap, but also because it is correct; in this life we need to give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's; we have to be a functioning part of society. We also need to pay attention to the things which are ultimate; ie God.

Bill Loader says this "quick witted reply of Jesus bristles with ambiguity in its second part..." It's very easy for us to comfortably assume we can draw a neat line between God and Caesar, except... is not everything God's?

Where Christianity gets into trouble with the State, is that it wants to say the State belongs to God, ultimately. The statement of Jesus here in Matthew, along with Paul's Romans 13 statement "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God." have been infamously used to give the State carte blanche. The prophets and the Christ everywhere fiercely criticize the State when that divinely instituted authority is abused.

Take Two: A Second Look.
"Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax." And they brought him a denarius." Jesus, is not carrying the specially minted coin for paying tax to the emperor. One of the Pharisees or Herodians obviously has a denarius. "Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?' They answered, ‘The emperor's.' " The head is that of Caesar Tiberius. The title, not made explicit by Matthew would be "Ti Caesar Divi Aug F Augustus" - "Tiberius, Caesar, worshipful son of the divine Augustus". 

Why did they leave him and go away? The very coin they were carrying caught them in their own trap. Pretending piety, they themselves were carrying the coin- remember Jesus did not have one- which claimed that the emperor was divine.

Not repeating the title on the coin means we can miss the subtlety of the story. I'm guessing that in an environment where Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Roman army, Matthew didn't feel the need to make his criticism of the Roman state more explicit! There is a further subtlety in the Greek of the original. It does not say "give" (dote). It has Jesus say apodote , "give back". "Give back to Caesar whatever is legally owed to him - but nothing more! Do not give to Caesar what Caesar has no right to demand - divinity, sinlessness, idolatry." (from PIUT)

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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