Lesson Focus: Jesus wants us to live as faithful servants of God while remaining active participants in our country.
Catch up on the story: We have just completed looking at three parables concerning true obedience. Each of the three previous parables dealt with characters that refused to respond appropriately to figures of authority in the stories. Over and over again, Jesus condemns the Jewish religious leaders for failing to or refusing 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, the 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 Text: 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 (See, Important Terms) 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.
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 as well local rulers who are mere puppets of Roman power. As with most occupations, people take up 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 were beneficial for the country. Others were staunchly against the Roman occupation.
In Israel, feelings concerning the Roman occupations take on religious overtones in addition to political ones. The question of supporting the Roman occupation quickly came down to the rightness of paying taxes. Some believe that to pay 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 that it was wrong to pay these taxes (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. Actually, the coalition that brings this question about taxes to Jesus dose not consist of the Pharisees, but the Pharisees’ disciples.
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 are asking for 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 yes it is proper to pay taxes to the emperor, 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 makes himself out to be 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 to 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 that had been minted by the empire. It is likely that the coin that the coalition produced 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 obviously declares Tiberius to be divine, or at least semi-divine. The coin amounted to 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 NIV’s translation here is more precise, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s…” In fact, the word translated as “give back” carries with it 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 to 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 and 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 then 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 in regards to 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.
Important Terms: Herodians: Matthew tends to label the religious leaders as Jesus’ opponents, whereas Mark emphasizes that Jesus’ opponents were both religious and political. What then is the significance of Matthew’s use of “the leaven of the Sadducees” in place of Mark’s “leaven of Herod,” or “the Herodians”? Some have speculated that the Herodians were a political party composed principally of Sadducees. Some have identified them with the Sadducees, and others with the Boethusians, whose name more often than not was used interchangeably with that of the Sadducees. The Boethusians and the Sadducees were indistinguishable theologically, but the Sadducees were loyal to the Hasmonean dynasty, whereas the Boethusians were attached to the Herodian house and consequently were called the Herodians. Thus the Herodians had political affiliations with the Herodian house and religious affiliations with the Sadducees. Along with the Sadducees, the Herodians were men of influence—the aristocrats of Palestine.
Nevertheless during Jesus’ time the political differences between the Herodians and the Sadducees were not as distinct because of the marriage of the Herodian Herod Antipas to the Hasmonean Herodias. The Herodians and the Sadducees would have been on the same side politically against the Pharisees, the former being pro-government while the Pharisees were both anti-Hasmonean and anti-Herodian. Congruent with this, Matthew 16:12 and Mark 8:15 represent the Pharisees and the Sadducees/Herodians as contrary parties opposing Jesus.
In summary, the Herodians were also known as the Boethusians. Theologically they were in agreement with the Sadducees, but politically they were more pro-Herodian than the Sadducees. While the Pharisees looked for a cataclysmic messianic kingdom to remove the present Herodian rule, the Herodians worked to keep Herod’s dynasty in power (Elwell and Beitzel, 972-973).
So What? 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 of 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 that is 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 it 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.
How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?
God is not interested in giving black and white answers that do not take into consideration our complex context. God will not be trapped. Rather, God will give us a way to live faithfully in the complex mess that is our world.
What does holiness look like in this text?
For us, I think holiness looks like finding a way to live at peace with and fully emerged in our world while at the same time living faithful lives to God.
How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
We must find ways to be faithfully engaged in the political life of our country while faithfully giving our due to God. This requires that we constantly ask our selves important questions regarding what it means to be a Christian in America.
Specific 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. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were anti-Roman occupation that 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 really 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 seems to be suggesting 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?
WORKS CITED: 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).
Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988).
Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1999).
Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996).