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Matthew 22:15-22 1

15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” 18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” 21 “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.

A Silver Coin also called a “Tribute Penny” – Wages for a 10 hour day – With one Denarius, you could feed yourself for only a day.

Background

The Pharisees pose Jesus a question that they hope will put Jesus between a rock and a hard place: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (verse 17) If Jesus answers that the taxes are lawful, He will offend the Pharisees and the many in the crowds who hate the Roman Empire’s constant meddling in Jewish affairs.  If the answer is “unlawful”, Jesus gets in trouble with the Roman emperor. It may also be helpful to understand that at this time in history, the tax was a “flat tax.” Everyone paid the same amount including the poor who could afford it the least. The tax in question is the poll tax or head tax, first imposed when Judea became a Roman province in 6 A.D. 

We know little about the Herodians. They are mentioned only here and in Mark 3:6 and 12:13—and nowhere in other literature. Their name implies that they support King Herod and his alliance with the Romans. That puts them in conflict with the Pharisees, whose relationship with Herod is less comfortable and who share the general resentment against the tax. The Pharisees and Herodians are brought together, in this instance, by their opposition to Jesus. If Jesus speaks out against the tax, the Herodians (loyalists to Rome) would consider this treasonous and report Jesus to the powers to be. It is a well-laid trap. Our story begins with flattery, complimenting Jesus’s reputation for always telling the truth and not ever being politically motivated. (verse 16).

Jesus isn’t fooled and agrees to answer the question. But first, He changes the issue slightly by asking to see the coin normally used to pay the tax. Jesus is being put on the spot. However, His questioners are really the ones who are more deeply entangled and complicit in taking advantage of the Romans. Jesus’ pockets are empty, He has no such coin but His opponents have no trouble coming up with a denarius on demand. When they produce the Roman coin, Jesus doesn’t answer immediately, He moves to make one more important point: “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” The Pharisees’ answer, “Caesar’s.” Then Jesus says, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” (verses 20-21).

The consensus at the time seems to have been that Jesus managed to wiggle out of the trap (verse 22), but it’s not clear that anyone even figured out yet exactly what Jesus was getting at. Some people point to this passage as proof that God and politics should be kept separate. This interpretation would state that things like taxes have absolutely nothing to do with one’s theological beliefs or even commitments. Others might say that this story proves that religion is a matter of the heart, and that Jesus doesn’t really care about minor things like what you do with your money. And some have even used this passage as proof that Jesus taught that the law is the law, and our duty as Christians is to support the government no matter what. All three of these interpretations are too simplistic.

Like a lot of things Jesus said, these words are hard to pin down to just one meaning. Jesus intended the generations to reflect on His wisdom and from it gain insight to live by. First, lets remember that Matthew’s Jesus has already spoken on the subject of money and divided loyalties: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (6:24). Jesus’s point here is different than describing a compromise between human loyalties, He is talking about God and the emperor.

By highlighting the physical features of the denarius coin used to pay the tax, Jesus gives a number of things to think about.

  • First, the image of the emperor stamped into the coin’s surface, along with the blasphemous inscription with the emperor’s claim to divinity. Remember the prohibition against images in (Exodus 20:4).
  • Next, Jesus points out that His opponents possess and display such an object within the Temple grounds (21:23), Jesus seems to raise, not lower, the stakes of the conversation about money and human loyalty. The issue at stake here is nothing less than idolatry. Jesus is pointing out that it is not as simple as printing different words on money,  even words that confess our trust in God. The Torah forbids graven images. The Pharisees and Herodians are questioning Jesus within the precincts of the temple—holy ground—and yet they have no problem producing the offending coin with its graven image, presumably from their own pockets. That act exposes their hypocrisy, because no truly observant Jew would carry a graven image in his pocket. 
  • Finally, the coin is man-made, stamped out by human hands for human purposes, and the image of Caesar is imprinted on it. It is hard not to compare the connection to those words from the beginning of Genesis and about what God said the first time God stamped out a human being. God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, …..” (Genesis 1:26).

If ever there was a good metaphor for the human heart, it is this one.  Who’s image does one’s heart bear? This is the real question that Jesus is trying to answer. To those who pursue wealth and treasure, it will be “Caesar’s Image.” To all who pursue God, it will be the image of our Savior, Jesus. This simple story in Matthew is meant to define the very character of each person.  Whatever we surrender to “Caesar,” or to the retirement fund, or to the offering basket at church, we can never change this simple fact. We belong entirely to God. Because of necessity, adversity or even abundance, we all divide our budget. However, Jesus tells us that we must never divide our allegiance to Him. The coins of our world today bear the images of dead presidents, historical places or even important historical events.  But is was God who said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness.” That is why each of us must never forget to render to God the things that are God’s.

Items for Discussion

  • Jesus is telling us to keep focused on Him. How does one keep the image of their heart focused on Jesus during “hard times?
  • How do you feel about the government taking more of your money? Is it really theirs to take?
  • How do you feel about your church asking for more of your money? 
    • It is often difficult to reconcile the prior two questions – How do you think our God would like you to handle conflicting requests?
  • What does it mean to “trust in God’s provision?”
  • Is Stewardship, the support of your church, always about money?
  • What is the role of the church when financial times get tough?
  • What is our responsibility to the poor, especially when times are tough?
  • What does a re-imaged human heart look like if it is patterned after Jesus?

Discussion Challenge

  • How does a church move itself from the constant need for money to a church focused on the re-imaging of human hearts?

Notes:

  1. NIV New International Version Translations
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