MATTHEW 21-23. THE CONTEXT
After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (21:1-11), Jesus attacked those for whom religion was a vested interest. He cleansed the temple (21:12-17) and cursed the unproductive fig tree (21:18-22). The chief priests and elders responded by challenging his authority (21:23-27), and he responded with a series of parables that continued his attack (21:28-32; 21:33-46; 22:1-14). After the first two parables, “the chief priests and the Pharisees… realized that he was speaking about them, and “when they sought to seize him, they feared the multitudes” (21:45-46). Pharisees have been conspiring to destroy Jesus since Matthew 12:14. They tested him to no avail in 16:1 and 19:3.
Now the Pharisees resume their counter-attack, begun in 21:23-27. Their goal is to destroy Jesus’ influence, either by discrediting him in the presence of the crowds or by causing him to make a misstep that will get him in trouble with the Romans. Our Gospel lesson is the first of three questions with which the Jewish leadership attempts to discredit Jesus.
• 22:15-22. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?
• 22:23-33. Whose wife will she be?
• 22:34-40. Which is the greatest commandment?
After Jesus deals with these three questions, he will denounce the scribes and Pharisees (23:1-36).
Christians have sometimes turned to 22:1-14 to address issues of church and state. While this text can be helpful in that regard, its main point has to do with people who claim religious authority but who do not obey God—people whom Jesus identifies as hypocrites (22:18). It calls us to review and to renew our commitment to God.
MATTHEW 22:15-17. IS IT LAWFUL TO PAY TAXES TO CAESAR?
15Then the Pharisees went and took counsel how they might entrap him in his talk. 16They sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are honest (Greek:alethes—true, honest), and teach the way of God in truth, no matter whom you teach, for you aren’t partial (Greek: ou gar blepeis eis prosopon anthropon—you do not look into the face of men) to anyone. 17Tell us therefore, what do you think? Is it lawful to pay (Greek: doumai—to give) taxes to Caesar (Greek: Kaisari—Caesar), or not?”
“Then the Pharisees went and took counsel how they might entrap him in his talk” (v. 15). They also tried this in 12:14. They know Jesus to be a formidable opponent, and want to avoid an unsuccessful confrontation. We can imagine them raising, refining, and discarding questions until they find one for which there is no answer.
“They sent their disciples to him” (v. 16a). The Pharisees send their disciples to question Jesus. If these disciples—amateurs—can get the best of Jesus, their junior status will enhance their victory. If they fail to get the best of Jesus—not likely given their excellent question—the Pharisees will not be personally embarrassed. It is a good tactical move on the part of the Pharisees, but cowardly.
“along with the Herodians” (v. 16b). We know little about the Herodians. They are mentioned only here and in Mark 3:6 and 12:13—and nowhere in secular 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.
“Teacher, we know that you are honest (alethes—true, honest), and teach the way of God in truth, no matter whom you teach, for you aren’t partial (ou gar blepeis eis prosopon anthropon—you do not look into the face of men) to anyone” (v. 16). The questioners begin with a bit of flattery, telling Jesus that he is true—that his teaching is dependable—and that he does not hedge his teaching to cater to powerful people. There is irony here, because they intend only to “butter Jesus up.” This can serve two purposes. First, by acknowledging Jesus’ special status, they can avoid alienating the listening crowd. They seem to be properly deferential, and appear only to be seeking counsel from competent authority on a troubling religious issue. Second, this flattery might cause Jesus to lower his defenses and make him vulnerable. The irony is that the flattery that they intend only as a manipulative ploy is, in fact, true. Jesus is sincere. His teaching is dependable. He does not defer to powerful people.
“Tell us therefore, what do you think?” (v. 17a). This lead-in to the question is designed to be irresistible. When someone says, “Tell us therefore, what do you think,” people are eager to oblige—to express their opinion—to exert influence. In this situation, it is a tempter’s ploy to get Jesus to say the wrong thing—to render himself vulnerable.
“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (v. 17b)—in other words, how does it accord with Torah? They have acknowledged Jesus’ status as a great teacher primarily as a way to pressure him to answer their question.
The tax in question is the poll tax or head tax, first imposed when Judea became a Roman province in 6 A.D. The poll tax generates more opposition than customs taxes, in part because people paying the customs tax can see a tangible benefit—a permit to transport and to receive goods. There is no visible benefit associated with the poll tax—it simply disappears into the emperor’s coffers. While the amount is not crushingly high, neither is it insignificant. A denarius is a day’s pay for an ordinary worker—the equivalent of $100 today
(NOTE TO THE PREACHER: If you live outside the U.S., determine the value of a day’s pay in your own currency. A denarius is more than minimum wage. A denarius a day will support a family, although not luxuriously.)
Another problem is that the poll tax is to be paid with a denarius coin, which bears the image of Caesar and the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, August son of the divine Augustus, high priest.” Jews consider graven images idolatrous and the inscription blasphemous, so the issue has a substantial religious basis. Nevertheless, the denarius is in common use among Jews—shunned only by zealots. Jesus makes reference to it as a day’s wage (20:2). As we shall see when the Pharisees produce a coin with the emperor’s image (22:19), the denarius coin is readily available and in common use even by scrupulously religious people.
By the time Matthew wrote this gospel late in the first century, the Pharisees constituted the dominant Jewish leadership–and the chief opposition to the church. Also, by that time, Matthew could look back at the disastrous rebellion in 70 A.D. that had been inspired, in significant measure, by this poll tax. The Romans responded to that rebellion by destroying the temple, the city of Jerusalem, and most of the city’s inhabitants.
“Is it lawful to pay (doumai—to give) taxes to Caesar, or not?” (v. 17b). Their use of doumai de-emphasizes their legal obligation to pay taxes and makes it sound as if they are being asked to donate to a questionable charity.
The problem for Jesus, of course, is that the questioners have carefully crafted a question that allows only a yes-or-no answer. Their purpose in doing so is to limit Jesus’ options so that he has no choice but to answer in a way that will compromise him. If Jesus answers that the taxes are lawful, he will alienate the people, who hate the tax and the coin. If he answers that the taxes are not lawful, the Romans will arrest him for sedition. Either way, Jesus loses and his enemies win.
MATTHEW 22:18-22. WHOSE IS THIS IMAGE?
18But Jesus perceived their wickedness (Greek: ponerian—evil), and said, “Why do you test(Greek: peirazete—tempt or test) me, you hypocrites? 19Show me the tax money.”
They brought to him a denarius.
20He asked them, “Whose is this image (Greek: eikon—icon—image) and inscription?”
21They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Give (Greek: apodote—give back) therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s (Greek: ta Kaisaros Kaisari—the things of Caesar to Caesar), and to God the things that are God’s.”
22When they heard it, they marveled, and left him, and went away.
“But Jesus perceived their wickedness” (ponerian—evil) (v. 18a). The word translated wickedness (ponerian), can also be translated evil (see 6:13). The word translated test (peirazete, v 18b) can be translated tempt. It is the same word that is used to describe Jesus’ temptation by the devil at the beginning of his ministry (4:1).
“Why do you test (peirazete—tempt or test) me, you hypocrites?” (v. 18b). Jesus reframes the dialogue by drawing attention to their ploy, which on the surface appears to be the ordinary give-and-take of rabbinic discourse, but is, in truth, nothing of the sort. It is another tempting of Jesus by agents of the devil (see 4:1-11). Their purpose is to destroy Jesus.
“‘Show me the tax money.’ They brought to him a denarius” (v. 19). 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. On another occasion, the people of Jerusalem “preferred death to allowing Caesar’s image to enter Jerusalem on standards (Jos. Ant. 18:59)” (Keener, 327).
Refusal to carry these coins would, no doubt, be inconvenient, but it would serve to witness to the fact that God called the Jews to be a people apart—a holy people—people living in accord with Jewish law.
Furthermore, in deference to Jewish sensibilities, Rome had made provision for Jews to make their own copper coins without Caesar’s image. But carrying a silver denarius was more convenient than carrying lots of copper coins (France, 830).
Jesus asks, “Whose is this image (eikon—icon—image) and inscription?” (v. 20). Hebrew scripture uses the word “images” in two different ways. First, God has created humankind in God’s image. Second, God has forbidden the use of graven images, because they might foster idolatry. It is this second meaning that is at issue here.
As noted above, the inscription on the coin is “Tiberius Caesar, August son of the divine Augustus, high priest.”
“They said to him, ‘Caesar’s'” (v. 21a). Some translations say “the emperor”, but the Greek word is kaisaros—Caesar. The two terms are roughly but not completely equivalent. The Greek word for emperor is Sebastos, which is used twice in the New Testament (Acts 25:21, 25).
Following the reign of Julius Caesar, who was assassinated in 44 B.C., emperors adopted Caesar as part of their name—hence Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1), Tiberius Caesar (Luke 3:1), etc. Except for Acts 25:21, 25, the New Testament uses the word Caesar throughout (Matthew 22:17-21; Luke 2:1; 3:1; John 19:12, 15; Acts 17:7; 25:10-12; Philippians 4:22).
Caesar’s image provides graphic evidence that it was Caesar who created the coin—and that the coin is inextricably linked to Caesar and his empire. It was Caesar who determined that the coin would be legal tender, and it was Caesar who determined its value. The coin is one of Caesar’s tools for maintaining an orderly economy. It is therefore an integral part of Caesar’s realm, and should be thought of as belonging to Caesar.
“Give (apodote—give back) therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (ta Kaisaros Kaisari—the things of Caesar to Caesar) (v. 21b). Apodate—give back (v. 21) is related to doumai (give), the word that Jesus’ questioners used in verse 17—but “give back” draws attention to the fact that the coin comes from Caesar. The coin bears Caesar’s eikon and is part of his realm, so it is appropriate to return the coin to Caesar.
As citizens (or even as subjects—as most Jews were), we have an obligation to the state—to obey its laws and to pay its taxes. Paul tells us that God has appointed higher authorities, and we are obligated to obey them (Romans 13:1-2). He goes on to say, “For this reason you also pay taxes, for (those in authority) are servants of God’s service…. Give therefore to everyone what you owe: taxes to whom taxes are due; customs to whom customs; respect to whom respect; honor to whom honor” (Romans 13:6-7). Calvin ruled that obedience to civil law and the payment of taxes in no way diminished a person’s service to God (Calvin, III, p. 26, quoted in Morris, 557). The exception, of course, is a situation where human law conflicts with God’s will—in which case we are to obey God (Acts 5:29).
“and (give back) to God the things that are God’s” (v. 21). We are made in the eikon of God (Genesis 1:26-27). We bear God’s image, and so it is appropriate to give ourselves back to God—all that we have and all that we are—because God created us and we are an integral part of God’s realm.
Jesus does not divide the world into two equal realms, clearly defining the boundaries between our obligations to Caesar and our obligations to God. Rather, his answer acknowledges our obligation to the state, but affirms our larger obligation to God. Coins bearing Caesar’s image may belong to Caesar, but all things (coins, Caesar, Rome, the planet earth, the universe) come from the mind of God and are under God’s dominion. Caesar’s realm is but a speck within God’s realm. The days of Caesar’s realm are numbered, but God’s realm is eternal.
This understanding of God’s ultimate dominion lies behind the Jewish understanding of their relationship to Rome. “In Jewish religious thought, foreign kings had power over Israel only by permission from God. Tax may be paid to Caesar because it is by God’s will that Caesar rules. When God chooses to liberate his people, Caesar’s power will avail him nothing” (Hare, 254).
“When they heard it, they marveled” (v. 22a). Jesus’ questioners know how much time and energy they devoted to setting a trap from which Jesus could not escape. They know how carefully they crafted their question. They remember practicing how to lead Jesus into a corner. Their question represented the best efforts of the best minds. It was tightly tied, with no loopholes. Now they see Jesus, having had no opportunity to prepare, effortlessly slip the knot. No wonder they are amazed.
“and left him, and went away” (v. 22b). They left and went away, because there was nothing more for them to do—except to lick their wounds and prepare for the next round.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Allison, Dale C. in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The Third Readings: The Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001)
Barclay, William, Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2 (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1957)
Bergant, Dianne with Fragomeni, Richard, Preaching the New Lectionary, Year A (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2001)
Blomberg , Craig L., New American Commentary: Matthew, Vol. 22 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Boring, M. Eugene, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Bruner, Frederick Dale, Matthew: Volume 2, The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28 (Dallas: Word, 1990)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Gardner, Richard B., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Matthew (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1990)
Hagner, Donald A., Word Biblical Commentary: Matthew 14-28, Vol. 33b (Dallas: Word, 1995)
Hare, Douglas R. A., Interpretation: Matthew (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993)
Johnson, Sherman E. and Buttrick, George A., The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 7 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1951)
Keener, Craig S., The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Matthew, (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1997)
Long, Thomas G., Westminster Bible Companion: Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997)
Morris, Leon, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1992)
Senior, Donald, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Matthew (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
Soards, Marion; Dozeman, Thomas; McCabe, Kendall, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993)
Thayer, Joseph Henry, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (NY: American Book Company, 1889)
Copyright 2009, Richard Niell Donovan