3 December 2011

Matthew 22:15-22

"But Jesus, aware of their malice, said,'Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.' And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, 'Whose head is this, and whose title?' They answered, 'The emperor's.' Then he said to them, 'Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's.'" (vv. 18-21)


Today's passage follows on directly from yesterday's reading. Having well and truly (and probably deliberately) got up the noses of the Pharisees, Jesus finds himself the subject of (yet another) plot to trap him into saying something dangerous.

But Jesus is wise to their games and exposes them as the hypocrites they are. He's not going to let them get away with pretending to really care about what he thinks about taxation. They wanted to humiliate him publicly and he shot them down in flames.

Their question is ultimately a legal one, but it sees the clashing of two different legal systems - the law of the Jews that guided every aspect of Jewish living and Roman law, by which every citizen under occupation must abide. As a known rabbi, or interpreter of Jewish law, Jesus must offer a ruling. If he tells the Jews to pay their taxes, he legitimates Roman rule in Jerusalem. This would have been a huge let down for many who believed that the Messiah would liberate the Jews from Roman oppression. To pay taxes to Rome was to admit one's subject status to Rome, something which many Jews were unwilling to do. However, if Jesus tells them not to pay their taxes, he risks becoming the unwilling champion of a political revolution against Caesar, and the Herodians were there to witness it for themselves.

And that which the Pharisees tried to complicate, Jesus makes perfectly simple - give to God that which is God's and to Caesar that which is Caesar's. Had Herod himself been present, he could not have disputed the answer and nor could they. The coin was minted and issued by Caesar and in simple terms belongs to him, so the citizens of Rome should literally pay what they owe. But other things belong to God and we should ultimately give ourselves back to God as a way of paying what we 'owe' for the freedom God has granted us.

Here, Jesus acknowledges that there are two realms of authority - God and government - each of which may legitimately require different things of us.

To Ponder

Does money matter to you? Why? Or why not?

What does it mean to pay what you owe to society?

What does it mean to pay what you owe to God?

What do you do when society's rules seem to conflict with your beliefs?

Bible notes author

Anna Drew

Anna Drew is Director of Communications for the Diocese of Canterbury. She is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's Daily Service and Prayer for the Day and a freelance writer on faith issues.