Scripture: Matthew 22:15-22
Sermon prepared by Rev. Duane VanderLaan, St. Catharines, ON
At the end of every year journalists recap the year’s events. The usual will be covered: world events, national events, sports’ biggest moments, weather related stories, and…oh yes…various lists of the best and the worst of anything you can imagine.
Often some of the biggest news stories have to deal with decisions made or not made at the federal government level. Be it decisions on hot button issues that affect our lives either morally, socially, or economically, the nation’s blood pressure may rise and fall dramatically over the course of a year. Politician pitted against politician, sometimes even of the same political stripe, citizen against fellow citizen.
If we were to leaf through history’s pages, we would certainly come across numerous other hot button political issues which have also crossed the line between church and state.
Our passage points to a hot button issue of Jesus’ time. It was the matter of paying taxes in conjunction with ones loyalty to the state or to God.
Before we look at the text, it is important to look at the context in which it is found.
We know by looking at the previous chapters as well as in correlation with the other gospel accounts that it is the point in time of Jesus’ ministry to which we refer today as Passion Week. He has made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It is now in the last days before Jesus’ death; Tuesday, to be precise.
Jesus has just been in the temple where the chief priests and elders, namely the Pharisees, have questioned Him as to what authority he has been given to preach His radical message, to do such shocking things like coming into the temple and driving out the money changers and overturning their tables. Not to mention all the healings He has performed. They’re definitely not enamored with Jesus, to say the least.
To add insult to injury, the Pharisees are still smarting from the treatment they received only a little earlier in the series of parables Jesus had given in which He calls judgment upon them. In chapter 21, in the Parable of the Two Sons, Jesus directs His words to them saying, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.” (Matthew 21:31) The tax collectors…the prostitutes…the scummiest of the scummy!
Of course, it was not the first time He had offended them. He disgusted them with His habit of eating with sinners (9:11), and His disrespect for the tradition of the elders (15:1-2, 12). He has now, exposed their evil intentions and spoken words of judgment against them (21:45). How dare He? After all, these were the Pharisees, whose aim was to follow the Jewish law, the ‘Torah’ to a ‘T’, and how dare He humiliate them before the crowds?!
Jesus’ pronouncement of judgment upon them only adds to their furry, to their rage. They want to do away with this Jesus. They have for some time now, having plotted His murder already (12:14). However, they have to be very careful of how they go about the dirty deed because of the large crowds Jesus seemed to draw nearly everywhere He went. They do not want to be perceived by the people as the ones who are to be blamed for Jesus’ death, or else they’d risk having a revolt on their hands.
We come now to our text.
The Trap is Planned
“Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words.” says v.15.
The word for ‘trap’ in the Greek is a hunting term meaning ‘to set a snare or trap’… ‘to ensnare’. These Pharisees were on a mission. Take Jesus out before He causes them any more angst. They’re hoping He walks right into the trap they’re about to set for Him. Hopefully, He will take the bait by spouting something that would open up the door for them to arrest Him.
The Entourage Formed
“They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians.” says v.16.
The Pharisees delegate some of their disciples to go to Jesus. Notice that these Jewish religious leaders do not go themselves but rather send ‘young bucks’ who are under their tutorship. Their delegating exposes a little of what they are truly like, putting them in a more sinister light. It’s like the big boss of an organized crime network using his henchmen to carry out a plan, and in turn protecting himself from what might go wrong.
These students of Pharisaism are sent to Jesus with none other than some Herodians, an unlikely entourage! Why? The Herodians were primarily a Jewish political party, supporters of Herod the Great and of Roman rule.
On the one hand, you’ve got these ‘Pharisee want-a-bes, likely no slouches in their own right, considered to be the purists of the nation, adamantly opposed to Rome and all attempts by Rome to intrude into the Jewish way of life. On the other hand, you have the Herodians who actively support the rule of Herod the Great and favor making changes with the times as dictated by Rome. Their allegiance was solely to the throne.
These two groups have nothing in common except for one thing. They have a common enemy – Jesus. The Pharisees viewed Jesus as a competitor for religious leadership of the people. The Herodians viewed Jesus’ growing popularity as a political threat to their Roman masters.
The Trap Set
These strange bedfellows begin to set their trap. They begin by doing a little brown nosing, a little ‘buttering up’. They speak to Jesus with flattering words. The Message puts it this way: “Teacher, we know you have integrity, teach the way of God accurately, are indifferent to popular opinion, and don’t pander to your students.” - v.16 Jesus' enemies intend for their flattery to disarm Jesus and the listening crowd. Certainly, no one can accuse them of attacking Jesus.
Then comes their question, a question that will put Jesus right where they want Him, they hope. “So tell us honestly Jesus…we want to know what you think: Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” – v.17 The trap has been set…will Jesus take the bait?
On the surface, their question might appear rather insignificant. It’s just a question after all; they simply want to know what Jesus’ thoughts are on the issue. Quite unlikely however, since they have taken some time beforehand to scheme. Their question is a loaded one and they know it; loaded because of its political and religious ramifications.
The tax they are talking about was what was known as a poll tax imposed by the Roman emperor, to be paid by all adults. It would be an understatement to say patriotic Jews loathed this poll tax. The tax was a hated symbol because it was a constant reminder of their political subjection and occupation by Rome. The Pharisees shared this resentment of the imposed Roman poll tax with their fellow Jews for several reasons:
(1) They hated the idea of submitting to a Gentile power
(2) They did not want to pay tax to a person (Caesar) revered as a god.
(3) Giving money to a pagan ruler amounted to high treason against God
On the other hand, the Herodians favored the tax. After all, their beloved Herod received his authority from Caesar; and Herod would have had a difficult time staying in power without Rome’s support.
Needless to say, the question they’ve raised for Jesus was one of the most explosive, emotional and divisive political issues of the day. It’s not difficult to see why the Pharisees and Herodians chose the poll tax as the bait for their trap because it appeared that no matter which side Jesus took, He would create problems for Himself. If He answered that it was right to pay taxes to Caesar, He would be siding with the Romans against Israel, and most Jews, including the Pharisees, would consider Him a traitor. As a result, He’d lose much popular support. If He said taxes should not be paid to Rome, He could be accused of being a rebel who opposed the authority of Rome, and the Herodians would have grounds to charge Him with treason. Either way, the outcome would serve the Pharisees’ murderous design.
The Pharisees think they have trapped Jesus, salivating at the thought of how deep Jesus is going to dig Himself a hole, figuring He will hang Himself on what ever words come out of His mouth.
So, with whom does Jesus’ loyalty lie?
The Hypocrites Exposed
But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? says v. 18
Jesus sees through their flattery. Their hypocritical words are like the sound of an annoying drip from a leaky faucet. He knows too well they are only acting the part. This is certainly not the first time He has encountered these Pharisaical types. He’s all too aware of their ‘not so well meaning intentions’.
On this basis alone, Jesus could have refused to answer them. He could have very well walked away and said nothing further. However, He knew the people around Him would not understand. Here was an opportunity for Him to silence His enemies and, at the same time, teach the people an important spiritual truth. One commentator has noted, “Nowhere is Jesus' clear-headedness and coolness under pressure more evident than here, amid these final controversies with the Jewish authorities. He is surrounded by enemies of every kind and assaulted with every conceivable kind of trick and trap. Yet he alone is in command and in control.” (Commentary on Matthew 22:15-22, Dr. Knox Chamblin, Reformed Theological Seminary)
Jesus continues: “Show me the coin used for paying the tax,” we read in v. 19
It’s not as though Jesus does not know what the coin looks like. He likely has seen it many, many times. He may have had one or two with Him. Instead, it’s Jesus’ wonderful way of involving His questioners in His answer.
And low and behold, a coin used for paying the tax called a denarius, also known as a ‘tribute penny’, is found in the pocket of a Pharisee and given to Jesus. A denarius was worth about a day’s wage and on it was the picture of the emperor and the inscription, ‘Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus, pontifex maximus (high priest)’. Each ruler minted his own coins and put his own image on them. The emperor's authority extended everywhere his coins circulated, and taxes were to be paid to him using his coin.
In getting the Pharisees to show Him one of Caesar’s coins, Jesus exposes their hypocrisy. No patriotic Jew, even more so a Pharisee, a holy leader whose place was in the temple, the most holy place in the Holy Land should be carrying this coin, with its ‘idolatrous’ portrait of the emperor and its inscription giving him the title ‘Son of God’. Put crassly, it’s as though Jesus asks, “Can anyone show me one of these idolatrous, blasphemous, God-mocking coins?” And a Pharisee says, “Sure, got one right here.”
Looking at the coin, Jesus continues: “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s”, comes the expected reply.
Acknowledging that the portrait and inscription is "Caesar's" (v. 21a), they are acknowledging that the coin itself is his.
Why then does Jesus draw attention to the portrait and inscription on the coin? Because He knew, as well as His questioners, that a person’s portrait and inscription on a coin “gave him the right to demand tribute from his subjects which kept with the common understanding that the emperor owned the coins which bore his image" (Lane, Mark, 424).
Jesus then responds with the familiar words,
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”
In other words, pay the tax, ‘pay the tribute’ because although they were under Roman occupation, Caesar provided them with government, with the Roman organization, security of person and property, means of transport, and a legal system. For the Roman government to provide these services required taxes, and it was an acknowledged fact wherever Caesar's coin circulated he had the right to collect taxes.
Jesus was saying in effect, if the coin belongs to Caesar, it is right that it be given to him
or more accurately, that it be given back to him. When the Pharisees and the Herodians asked their question, they used the verb ‘give’ (didomi- v. 17). When Jesus responds, He uses the verb ‘give back’, ‘return’ (apodidomi- v. 21b). As long as they have something in their possession that belongs to Caesar, they’re obligated to give it back.
Jesus’ words affirm the general Biblical principle of submission to political authority. Paul’s teaching in Romans of the believer’s responsibility to submit to governing authorities ultimately set in place by God rests on these words of Jesus. Incidentally, Paul uses the same verb ‘to give back’:
“Give (give back) everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” He writes in Romans 13:7
“Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s Jesus continues… and (give back) to God what is God’s.” it says in v.21 of our passage.
Jesus’ questioners are indebted to Caesar only in so far as giving back to him the little silver pieces with his image on them. However, they are also indebted to God, a much greater indebtedness. Coins bearing Caesar’s image may belong to Caesar, but all things (coins, Caesar, Rome, the planet earth, the universe) are under God’s dominion. “The earth is the LORD’S, and everything in it. The world and all its people belong to Him” says Psalm 24:1. Only by "giving to God what belongs to Him," could one fulfill his indebtedness to Caesar without becoming Caesar's slave, and by setting "God" over against "Caesar," Jesus is speaking “against the idolatrous claims advanced on the coins" (Lane, 424).
Jesus doesn’t take the bait. His answer amazes His interrogators. Their question represented the best efforts of the best minds. There seemed to be no loopholes. Yet Jesus, with no opportunity to prepare, effortlessly makes a mockery of their scheme. No wonder they are amazed. They went away, because there was nothing more for them to do -- except to lick their wounds and to prepare for the next round.
Jesus’ answer revealed that for Him it’s not a matter of conflicting loyalties. Loyalty to human rule can be safely nurtured only if the person ruling is not the object of highest loyalty. Rather, Jesus uses the opportunity to teach a much more profound truth. The giving of a little round silver object with someone’s image on it and the requirement to give it back to him greatly pales in comparison to everything, absolutely everything which has the ownership seal of God. Those Pharisees and Herodians were made in the image of God, with His imprint on their soul. They knew exactly what Jesus was getting at when He told them to give “to God what is God’s”; they knew their Old Testament!
As Reformed Christians, we confess that the words from these pages are as living and active today as nearly 2000 years ago when the Pharisees, the Herodians, and anyone else in earshot heard the words uttered from the lips of Jesus. We confess that God’s Word is authoritative, that it has a claim upon our lives; we are under God’s Word, and are to obey it (cf. What It Means to Be Reformed, CRC Document). Therefore, Jesus’ words, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” are for us as well. What is the message for us?
As Christians, we have dual citizenship. We are citizens of the country in which we live, and we are citizens of the Kingdom of heaven. In Acts 22, the centurion asked Paul, "Are you a Roman citizen?" "I am," Paul said. Yet Paul also knew that he belonged to the kingdom of heaven. In Philippians 3:20 he expressed this: "But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ."
So as citizens of this country, what does our ‘giving back’ to Caesar look like? As Christians, we have a responsibility to the government to be faithful and honest in paying our taxes in return for the privileges the government provides for us. If we enjoy Caesar’s benefits, we should pay Caesar’s taxes. I don’t know about you, but I kind of like having paved roads to drive on, my neighborhood protected by the police and fire department, and weekly garbage pick-up.
Christians ought to be the best citizens in a country. Our responsibility goes beyond paying taxes. Giving back to the government should include being involved in the political process, by voting, by advocating Christian ethics amongst our elected leaders, by praying for them. We need to support policies that help the weak and downtrodden, and that promote biblical morality. We must speak against the rape of the environment, the pollution of the school system, and policies that destroy families. This is all in line with the Kuyperian Calvinistic tradition, which desires to take back, to reclaim, to reform every last area of God’s creation.
While Jesus’ answer acknowledges our obligation as citizens to the state, He affirms our much larger obligation to God. “Give to God what is God’s.” What is God’s? Everything is His! There’s nothing that we can name that is outside the realm of God. It brings to mind Abraham Kuyper’s famous words: "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!'"
We read in the creation account, in Genesis 1:27, God said, “Let us make humans in our image, in our likeness.” How do we know what belongs to God? That which bears His image! Therefore, we are ‘God’s coins’ if you like.
What does it then look like to give back to God what is God’s? What does it include?
It includes 1) giving to Him our worship. “Come, let us worship and bow down. Let us kneel before the Lord our maker, for he is our God,” says Psalm 95:6. Not only are we created in God’s image, but how much more we are compelled to worship Him for He “chose to save us through our Lord Jesus Christ, not to pour out his anger on us” (1 Thessalonians 5:10) for our sins.
2) Giving to God our devotion. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength" (Mark 12:30). Paul says in 1 Corinthians, "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God." (1 Cor. 10:31)
Giving back to God is also 3) Loving others as yourself. We owe God our love for others: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:31). “So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” we are told in John 13: 34,35.
4) Giving to God our first fruits. We have the wonderful opportunity each and every Sunday to give back to God through tithes and offerings corporately, to give of our first fruits. God promises blessings for those who faithfully tithe, and He says that refusing to tithe is like robbing Him (Malachi 3:8-12). Remember that He owns the cattle on a thousand hills. The whole earth is His to mine. No, He can do just fine without your or my piddly check each week. Our giving unto to Him is an outward sign of our inward condition.
How do we give back to God? Ultimately by saying, ‘Lord, here I am. Take me. I’m yours. Everything that I am and have is at your disposal.’ It’s offering ourselves completely.
There is a simple song written by John Bell called: ‘Take, O Take Me As I Am’
Let that be our simple prayer:
Take, O take me as I am; summon out what I shall be;
Set your seal upon my heart and live in me
To God Be all the Glory! Amen.
Order of Worship
OPENING OF THE SERVICE
Call to worship-Psalm 99
Worship in Song
24 The Earth and the Riches
601 Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us with Your Love
Scripture: Psalm 34:11-3
Song: 195 Our God Reigns
CELEBRATING GOD’S PRESENCE
Scripture: Exodus 33:12-23
Song: 244 God Himself Is with Us
Prayers of the people/Offertory prayer
Song: 578 Jesus, Lover of My Soul sung during offering
Offertory song 296 We Give You But Your Own
Prayer for understanding
Scripture reading: Matthew 22:15-22
Reader: This is the Word of the Lord
People: Thanks be to God
Message: God's Coins
Song: 288 Take My Life and Let It Be
CALL TO DISCIPLESHIP
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10