15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.16So 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. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, ‘Whose head [Greek: image ikon] is this, and whose title?’ 21They 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.’22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
How can I give Caesar what is Caesar's when everything is God’s?
The conversations which began in the Temple in Chapter 21 continue. Jesus still has the numbers, so the Pharisees are still afraid of the crowd and cannot move against him. They can only seek to sway opinion; that is, to entrap him. (Matthew 21:26, 22:15) On this occasion, even though his clever answer is clearly against Caesar, Jesus "dodges among the powers," (Loader) and they cannot move against him because their own hypocrisy is exposed. They are amazed not so much at the content of the answer, but at the way he has still kept opinion on his side, and that he still has the numbers.
So if we think the Pharisees are defeated by his argument, we have trivialised the incident into some kind of verbal one-upmanship, and are blind to the fact that they got exactly what they wanted: he told them he was against Caesar. But he also exposed their hypocrisy for bringing idolatrous coinage into the temple, and for implying, in the temple, that Caesar might have a claim to authority.
… in the ancient world there was no concept of a separation of civic and religious life. There was no way to even express that in language. (Rick Morely)
If everything is God's, then in all things I will seek God's will and that will entail measuring all things, including governments, by the vision Jesus has given us of God's rule or kingdom. God's compassion knows no bounds, so it will always be an irritant to regimes which stifle it and it will stand in conflict with oppressors, whoever and wherever they are. (Bill Loader)
So in the Jewish mindset, Jesus has given Caesar no authority at all. He has said the precise opposite of our modern idea that we can pay our taxes and keep our religion private. He has most certainly not endorsed that strange hypocrisy which says we stay out of politics except for issues of abortion and gender. Instead of providing a neat and comfortable separation of state and religion, Jesus shows us the difficulty of our position as those who claim allegiance to God instead of allegiance to Caesar.
When Jesus asks to be shown the coin used for paying the tax, note that there IS a specific coin that is required to be used to pay the Roman tax. It is a Roman coin. And on that coin is the image of the Roman Emperor. Such coins have been found by archaeologists, and printed on the coin would be the title, "Tiberius, Emperor, son of God." Thus the coin violates the commandments to have no other Gods except the Lord, and the commandment to not make any images of God. Possessing such a coin was extremely problematic for faithful, observant Jews because not having it meant running afoul of the Romans, and having it was a violation of core Torah law. (David Ewart I have added the emphasis.)
How then do we live?
God wants human flourishing, meaning the flourishing of all human beings and of creation, so of course God is in favour of government. God is for good government, only let justice flow down (Amos 5:21-24) and feed widows and orphans. (James 1:27, Psalm 146:5-9, Isa 58:6-7, et multis aliis) To have no other God than God, and to love our neighbour as ourselves, is to do these things. Jesus himself will tell us this in a few verses. (Matthew 22:34-40)
If we do not make justice our priority, and do not have the feeding of widows and orphans embedded in the very cloth of our religion, then we are Caesar. It is not that government is evil as such. It is that like any human system, government tends toward holding power to itself, for its own continuance, and so becomes Caesar. Caesar seeks to hold power to himself, to appropriate power that belongs only to God. In fact, Caesar imposes power that God does not impose; God invites in love, Caesar enforces with violence.
In all this, Caesar is simply human, like the Pharisees, who put their own desire for power, and their own desire to win, in front of healing and justice when they objected to the healing of people in the temple which is supposed to be a place of God's healing. When we are like this, we "leave Jesus and go away." (Matthew 22:22)
If we must have our own way then little separates us from those religious folk who seek to destroy Jesus. (Matthew 12:14) We, too, will make ungodly alliances for the sake of winning. The Pharisees are in an alliance they cannot possibly agree with or condone, except that it will enable them to get rid of Jesus. The text says “the Pharisees went… to entrap… along with the Herodians… “The Pharisees are the subject of this phrase; they are the problem; they— God's pious ones— are the hypocrites.
We owe no allegiance to the city in which we live, but to pray for it. In this we remember Jeremiah.
7But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:7)
We remember Jeremiah was clear about the corruption of the governments of Jerusalem and spoke against them.
So to Give to God what is God's is not to be opposed to government in principle, but is to seek human flourishing and to work within society, and to seek good government for all people. To deny the flourishing of all who are human, is to cease to worship God, and to cease loving our neighbour as ourselves. It is to side with government, and with the nation, when it has become Caesar-like. I add the nation itself here, because we can see very clearly that nations aspire to a level of flourishing for their own people that they deny to other peoples; in fact, we currently flourish as a nation at the expense of other nations.
Far too often, "Christian" calls for separation from politics are about the maintenance of the political privilege of the people making the call. These people are already on the side of Caesar, putting their own power and privilege and comfort above more general and equitable human flourishing. Like the Pharisees, they claim to eschew politics and then make an alliance with the Herodians (the vassal allies of Caesar) and take political action: witness Christians voting for Trump, and others supporting Morrison and Dutton. We are hypocrites with Caesar's coinage in our pockets when we do this. This is necessarily the maintenance of monetary privilege. Sometimes we wish to maintain the privilege of telling society how it must live.
As an institution, church is just as much a power as any other institution, and therefore capable of being a Caesar. The same dynamic in all this applies to our relationship to the church as ministers and other members. When we suspend clergy who ask difficult questions, or silence church employees with lawyers or threats of sacking, or excommunicate members who won't follow our doctrinal shibbloleths, we are being Caesar.
The story of the image on the coin is part of the argument with Jesus over the source of his authority. (Matthew 21:23) By what authority do you teach justice? They have their own answer ready: you do not do this by our authority! The incident is, first of all, an argument within the gathering of God's people! It is like the church bringing the forces of government alongside in order to solve its internal argument. It is the church leadership looking to bolster its authority by using the power of Caesar. It is the church upset along with its tables, unable, or refusing, to see that it's tables were not aiding human flourishing but acting as a fence separating people from God. Its tables in the forecourt were about the amassing of capital and privilege, and not about the healing of people.
None of this should be controversial. The fact that it so often is; the fact that church folk are so often insistent about evangelism versus social justice, (as though the two could be separated!) and that the fact that, even for the rest of us, the dynamics of privilege and power and political action are so poorly understood, is down to two things.
The one is that we would rather keep our privilege. I have my salvation, thank you very much, so leave me alone. We want to have our cake and eat it, rather than recognise that the way of salvation involves the giving up of cake and living with the wholesomeness of bread.
The other is that to eat bread and drink wine is to eat a last supper. The last supper is the diminishment of our ego. It is to subject ourselves to God, to embrace the path of dying, to take Christ's life in our hands, to live it, and to die it. It is to live out our salvation in fear and trembling rather than to achieve a place of comfort. We substitute comfort for wholeness. We seek a place where our heart is untroubled, forgetting, or unaware, that we will only find wholeness as we stand alongside those who are troubled. We will only find the deeper peace of life which is healing, rather than mere temporary comfort, when we separate ourselves from Caesar and risk his wrath.
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. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Also on One Man's Web
Matthew 22:15-22 - Argue Like Jesus (2014)
Matthew 22:15-22 - Smart Answer, Wise Word (2008)
You can find more reflections on biblical texts on the Lectionary page.
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