Matthew 22: 15-22
Parallels Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16 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. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21 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.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Three parables are followed by three challenges of Jesus’ authority as the Pharisees and Sadducees attempt to respond to Jesus in this charged situation. The Pharisees, which have been in conflict with Jesus from early in his ministry, now reemerge as those challenging his authority and putting him to the test. Jesus’ response to their question, which is often lifted out of its context and used with a couple other texts, particularly Romans 13:1-7, by many conservative Christians as a basis for a church/state theology where being a Christian means being serving those in political power, but for those who listen to Matthew’s presentation of Jesus’ message should understand that something much greater lies underneath these words and the way Jesus skillfully answers the question that is designed to either alienate Jesus from the crowds or to give the religious leaders a way to paint Jesus as an insurrectionist to the Romans.
Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of heaven presents an alternative to the bloody peace of the pax Romana, and yet throughout Matthew, Jesus often subverts the way of Rome from within. Jesus’ presence has resulted in reaction from those with political power since his birth, and yet Jesus has not sought out direct conflict with those in power but has instead modeled a way of peacemaking that is an alternative to the ways of the empire. This is the second time Jesus has been asked about taxes in Matthew and, as in 17:24-27, Jesus finds a way to grant to temple or Caesar what they claim without impinging on God’s claims. It is also important to remember the audacious claim of Israel’s faith: that their God is not merely the God of Israel, but the God of all the nations and God can use the nations, whether they are aware of it or not, to be forces of judgment and blessing for Israel. In the revised common lectionary this text is paired with Isaiah 45:1-7 where God anoints Cyrus the Great for God’s mysterious purposes. The prophet Jeremiah dealt with people who withheld tribute from Babylon, an unforgivable move from not only Babylon’s perspective but also in Jeremiah’s understanding, of God’s. As Rabbi Binyamin Lau can state:
Jeremiah keeps returning to his most deeply held principles: God controls geopolitics, and He has chosen Nebuchadnezzar to rule the world at this time. The decision cannot be revoked, and anyone who rebels against it is in fact rebelling against God. (Lau 2010, 141)
In the parable which precedes this question, it is probable that Matthew understands Rome’s destruction of the temple and the city in 70 CE as God’s working through Rome in judgment of the leaders refusal to accept the invitation to meet the bridegroom (22:1-14) or present the harvest as in the second parable of the series (21:33-46).
I’m writing this at the end of a contentious election cycle in the United States, and while many Christians may tacitly acknowledge that God is the ruler of all the nations, there is an amazing propensity to try to turn that God into a tribal god who is primarily concerned for one group or nation and to align religious and political power in unhealthy ways. We know that in Jesus’ time there was significant political unrest in Galilee and Jerusalem with the Roman rule and occupation, but there was also coordination between political and religious authorities for mutually beneficial purposes. IAlthough very little is known about the Pharisees as a group in Jesus’ time, and the two primary sources we have: the gospels (where the Pharisees are continually in conflict with Jesus and his disciples) and Josephus, who writes in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem, must be read closely and at the same time critically. I have attempted to limit the Pharisees, as they are portrayed in the gospel, to a group Jesus was in conflict with and allow the story to illustrate the nature of that conflict. What we can point to is the Pharisees, as portrayed in Matthew coordinate with the Herodians, presumably those allied with Herod Antipas who is ruling in Galilee, and with the Pharisees’ presence in conflict with Jesus in Galilee it is reasonable to assume that Matthew sees some alignment between the Pharisees and Herod Antipas’ desire to assume the mantle of his father, Herod the Great. Narratively it would make sense that the Pharisees alignment with power in the person of Herod and the Sadducees alignment with Pilate would be a continuation of their struggle for power among Israel. I have also suggested that John the Baptists’ and Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees and Sadducees may be linked to the accommodation they’ve made with these powers.
Any question of what is permissible is bound to be contentious, and this has been a frequent part of the challenges Jesus has encountered from the Pharisees (12:2,4,10; 19:3), it was how John the Baptist challenged Herod Antipas’ relationship with Herodias (14:4) and how Jesus, in a parable, challenges those unhappy with the ‘housemaster’ paying each worker the same. (20:15) The question is framed to entrap Jesus as either in rebellion against Roman authority or being viewed by the crowd as sympathetic to Rome. Jesus’ answer, which uses the imagery and inscription of Roman coinage, coinage which would not be accepted in the temple because of the image and the claims made by the inscription about Caesar being a ‘son of a god’, both accepts and qualifies Roman authority. Rome may demand the coinage they mint, and yet God’s claim on the disciples is far greater. There may be times where to resist authority is to resist God who is in control of geopolitics, but even when the empire doesn’t know the God of Israel its authority is contingent upon God’s sometimes mysterious work in the world and the nations.
Christians of every time have had to navigate between when they can accommodate the practices of the empire and when they must prophetically resist. When it comes to taxes to the temple (17:24-27) or Rome, Jesus points to a way to render to Rome and temple what belongs to them without losing one’s primary allegiance to God. Much of the New Testament involves the early Christian church navigating their citizenship of the kingdom of heaven within the world of the Roman empire. Two thousand years later, Christians still have to navigate their primary allegiance to God and the often bellicose demands of nation, culture and one’s political tribe. As St. Paul would say in Romans, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18) while at the same time insisting that followers of Christ are not to be “conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of you minds, so that you may discern the will of God.” (12:2) Just as Jesus reframed the question of the Pharisees, so modern Christians will often have to reframe the questions the culture asks them based on their understanding of the will of God.