Lesson Focus Jesus wants us to live as faithful servants of God while remaining active participants in our country.
Through this lesson, students should:
1. Understand that Jesus' response to the question about paying taxes illustrates the delicate balance between civic responsibility and spiritual allegiance Christians are called to maintain.
2. Understanding the interaction between the Herodians and Pharisees in questioning Jesus is a powerful example of the complex dynamics between religious and political forces in society, encouraging learners to consider the intersection of faith and governance.
3. Ponder the question regarding what belongs to Caesar, what belongs to God, and how we might live faithfully in this world.
Catching up on the Story
We have just completed looking at three parables concerning true obedience. Each of the three previous parables dealt with characters who refused to respond appropriately to figures of authority in the stories. Over and over again, Jesus condemns the Jewish religious leadership for failing to respond appropriately to God’s call and guidance. What is clear is that the Jewish religious leaders, because of their unfaithfulness, will not easily find a place in God’s kingdom. At the same time, however, the most unlikely kinds of people, prostitutes, and tax collectors, will be invited to the party. Even for these, proper response is mandated.
Matthew now turns his gospel from parables to a series of controversy stories. This week’s lesson is the first of these controversy stories.
The setting of this week’s passage is still the Temple area. There seems to have been some break in the action between verse 14 and verse 15, although the text does specify how long. We can imply the break because the Pharisees, who were part of the audience in the preceding passages, have time to consort with the Herodians so that they might trap Jesus.
In verse 15, we get, “Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him…” The intent of the questions Jesus will be asked, unlike Peter’s questions earlier, will be to entice Jesus into saying something that will get him in trouble. It’s a trap. A bit of political context is important before we dive into this passage. First, Israel is, at this time, a colony of Rome. There is an occupying military presence and local rulers who are mere puppets of Roman power. As with most occupations, people take different sides regarding the advantages or disadvantages of being under Roman rule.
Some, who were more apt to collude with the Romans, believed that the peace and rule that the Romans provided benefited the country. Others were staunchly against the Roman occupation.
In Israel, feelings concerning the Roman occupations take on religious and political overtones. The question of supporting the Roman occupation quickly came down to the rightness of paying taxes. Some believe paying the required tax was tantamount to supporting and condoning an idolatrous and religiously debased state, which endorsed emperor worship. So, the revolutionary-minded segments of Israel believed paying these taxes was wrong (Bruner, 397).
In this passage, Jesus encounters both those who want to support the Roman occupation, the Herodians, and those who don’t, the Pharisees. The coalition that brings this question about taxes to Jesus does not consist of the Pharisees but the Pharisees’ disciples.
The Herodians and the Pharisees’ disciples gather around Jesus and begin to butter him up. The Pharisees likely sent their disciples because such glowing talk coming out of their mouths would seem disingenuous.
The questioners praise Jesus for his sincere teaching in accordance with God’s truth. They also declare that Jesus shows regard to no one. In other words, they believe that Jesus is not likely to change how he will respond to a given question based on who is asking it. Jesus will speak the truth, regardless of what people will think. His accusers are right in that regard!
The questioners demand to know what Jesus thinks about paying taxes to the Roman emperor. The tax being referenced is most likely the “head tax” that was paid once a year. The “tell us” of verse 17 is not a casual request for an opinion. No, they ask Jesus to make a definitive and authoritative statement on the issue. They want to know if Jesus, as a respected religious teacher, believes paying taxes to Rome is in accordance with right doctrine. A yes or no answer is what the Pharisees’ disciples and Herodians are looking for (Bruner, 398).
If Jesus says that paying taxes to the emperor is proper, he would be discredited among the people who regard him as the Messiah. Part of the people’s messianic hope was that they would be freed from their Roman oppressors. If Jesus gives the green light to pay the tax, then, in some ways, he is legitimating Rome’s power. On the other hand, if Jesus judges that it is not right to pay the tax, he becomes a revolutionary and an enemy of the state. Rome does not deal kindly with revolutionaries.
Jesus will not respond with direct yes or no answers. He knows their hearts and their thoughts. Instead, Jesus asks that the coalition produce the coin with which it would be appropriate to pay the tax. The group produced a denarius. An imperial tax, such as the one being discussed, could only be paid with a coin the empire had minted. The coin that the coalition produced likely bore the image of Emperor Tiberius Caesar with the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus” (Keener, 525).
At this time, coins were used to help encourage the practice of emperor worship. The inscription on the coin declares Tiberius to be divine or at least semi-divine. The coin was a portable idol because it bore the emperor’s image. Jesus receives the coin and then asks the group whose image was on it. They respond, “The emperor’s.” Note that their response indicates that the coin actually belongs to the emperor. That the coin actually belongs to the emperor is important for Jesus’ answer to the question. Jesus then tells them to give back to the emperor what is his.
The NRSV translation here is more precise, “So give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s…” The word translated as “give back” carries the added meaning of debt payment. To “give back” implies that the payment is in response to an incurred obligation (Louw and Nida, 574). Here, Jesus is counseling respect for the state. The state is an agent of God to provide order, safety, and justice for its citizens. If we take advantage of the good things that the state provides for us, then we cannot refuse to pay the taxes that are due.
Hilary, Bishop of Poitiers, one of the church fathers, commented on this passage, “For if there remain with us nothing that is Caesar’s, we shall not be bound by the condition of rendering to him the things that are his; but if we lean upon what is his if we avail ourselves of the lawful protection of his power, we cannot complain of it as any wrong if we are required to render Caesar the things of Caesar (Aquinas, 751).
Jesus will balance his statement about respect for the state with his next breath. “…and to God the things that are God’s.” You and I are created in the image of God, and in some ways, we are like the coin Jesus requested to see. As we bear the image of God, we are God’s possession. Our life and image are not our own, so if the coin that belongs to the emperor should be given back to him, how much more should our lives be given back to God?
If Jesus was counseling respect for the state in the first part of verse 21, then he is limiting our allegiance to the state in the second half. The state, however, often seeks more of us and from us than it is right for us to give. As Christians, our total and complete allegiance belongs to God. There have been and will be times, like Hitler’s Germany, where the state grossly overreaches itself regarding our allegiance.
Bruner remarks that “The state becomes demonic in the measure that it asks for itself ‘the things of God,” such as total commitment, unconditional obedience, or uncriticizing allegiance (e.g., ‘America! Love It or Leave It’)” (Bruner, 400).
When we are tempted to be Americans who happen to be Christians rather than Christians who happen to be Americans, Christ gently calls us to give back “to God the things that are God’s.” A country need not call us to participate in or condone mass genocide to become demonic. The coalition of Herodians and the disciples of the Pharisees are amazed by Jesus’ response, so they walk away.
There is a tension in the coalition’s question that is real for us today. What is our proper relation to the country in which we live? There is no doubt that America is a great country, and we should all be grateful for everything we have because we are citizens of this land. We are blessed, often beyond our own ability to recognize. Rightly so, our country requires something of us in exchange for all those great gifts. We must pay for the roads, bridges, utilities, police, fire protection and ambulance services. It is appropriate for us to pay for those things. It is also appropriate to participate in our country’s political process.
Yet, often, our country asks of us even greater things. Our country often asks us to be loyal to it above any other loyalties. We are to be Americans before we are anything else. The American way of life is taught to us as something sacred. The reality is that there is nothing sacred about the American way of life. When we go all in, allowing our national identity to shape us more than anything else, we fail to give back to God what is his.
This tension between giving to America what is America’s and giving to God what belongs to God is not new and will not go away overnight. It’s a complex issue that requires our collective dialogue about what it means to be Christians who live in America. What is appropriate to give to America? How do we faithfully live as Christians in this country? We must deal with these questions because the alternatives are not helpful. If we fail to grapple with these questions well, we will either end up giving our complete allegiance to our country, like some of the German churches did during the time of Hitler, or we shrink away from the world and go into isolation, seeking to not be contaminated by the world. Choosing either extreme will cause us to live unfaithfully in a world where God has called us to be salt and light.
Our place in this world must be one of careful and thoughtful engagement with the powers that be. At the same time, we must constantly recognize that because we are created in the image of God, we belong to God and must give the entirety of who we are back to God.
Discussion Questions Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
The Herodians were a group of leaders who were loyal to the pro-Roman government. On the other hand, the Pharisees were anti-Roman occupation who hoped for a messiah who would rid Israel of the Romans. Why would these two groups get together to question Jesus?
The Herodians and Pharisees who question Jesus begin by saying nice things about him. Why would they begin this way?
Why might the question of taxation be a subject of interest to the Herodians and the Pharisees?
Why does Jesus want to know whose head is on the denarius? Keep in mind that the Romans encouraged emperor worship.
Jesus tells the group to give back to the emperor the things that are his and to God the things that are God’s. What does Jesus mean by this?
Jesus suggests that we find a balance between our involvement with and commitment to the government and our allegiance to God. How might we successfully participate in our country while at the same time giving everything that is God’s to God?
Where does your supreme allegiance lie?
Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels, Collected Out of the Works of the Fathers: St. Matthew, ed. John Henry Newman, vol. 1 (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1841).
Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary: The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28, Revised & enlarged edition (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004).