Commentary on Matthew 22:15-22
No one would have expected the Pharisees and the Herodians to come together on the issue of taxation.
The former opposed the Roman empire and the latter actively worked with it but their shared disdain for Jesus brought the two ideologically and politically opposed groups together.
They offered false praise of Jesus before posing a question—Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?—aimed at entrapment. The Greek word pagideusosin has the connotation of ensnaring someone in their own words. The question was meant to offer Jesus no alternative but to either defy Caesar or offend those who are resisting Rome, which likely included most of his supporters. The attempted entrapment is typical of controversy stories, where the challenge is meant to confuse or confound Jesus, thereby demonstrating power over him.1
It was a loaded question. The Greek word egsestin literally means “legal” or “lawful” and refers to what was permitted (or not permitted) under the Roman law. Taxes were both a source of revenue for the empire but also Rome’s mechanism for subjugating people.2 However, considering the extreme consequences of refusing to pay taxes, the question should have been, “Is it legal not to pay taxes to Caesar? The answer was a big no, at least from a Roman perspective.
The Herodians and Pharisees knew fully well the consequences of defying the Roman empire and have been negotiating with it for decades. The Pharisees have been making deals with Rome even as they were opposed to its rule. While the Herodians did not oppose the Roman rule, they did not always share its political agenda. Nevertheless, they were often in bed with Rome in order to pursue their political and economic interests. Hence, it was hypocrisy on the part of the two groups to suggest that Jesus explicitly commit to collaborating with or defying the empire. The choice for him and his followers was more complicated than simply condoning the empire or engaging in outright sedition.
Religious leaders in Matthew have a long history of testing Jesus in the hope of getting him to say something incriminating (16:1; 19:3). This instance is no exception. In response, he asks for a coin they typically used to pay taxes. The emperor’s image and inscription on the coin were reminders that the Roman empire was present in every realm of their lives. The image and the inscription also identify who controls the economy. The fact that they produced the coin so quickly also exposes the extent to which everyone, including (or especially) the Pharisees and the Herodians, have been participating in Caesar’s economy willingly or because they have no other choice. They are all trading in Caesar’s economy, so they are legally obligated to pay the tax. And Jesus is not about to encourage those at the margins to defy the empire and jeopardize their lives.
The question of paying taxes had surfaced previously in a conversation with Peter (Matthew 17:24-27). Within that literary context, the conversation calls attention to the oppressive nature of earthly rulers who spare the children (other members of the ruling class) and impose heavy financial burden on “others” (ordinary people). Having made his point deftly, but not so subtly, about the exploitative nature of taxation, Jesus nevertheless encouraged Peter to pay taxes so as to not offend the empire, although he himself will challenge it later.
The question in Matthew 22 about paying taxes was not just a political question. It was also a moral and theological question. Egsestin has both political and theological connotations. What is legal is not necessarily moral. What is lawful from Rome’s perspective might not be acceptable to God. Hence, even as one pays taxes due to Caesar, one should also pay what is due to God.
But what is the relationship between the political and theological aspects of “paying?” Paying to both Caesar and God was not so much about checking off both boxes or keeping both of them equally happy but about carefully considering the complexity of the issue at hand. While people pay taxes to Rome out of obligation, they “pay” to God because of their calling and their commitment to promote an alternative kingdom.
As Warren Carter has noted, an imperial tax can be paid without the payment being a vote of support for Rome or its ethos. Paying taxes acknowledges Rome’s political power but not its moral authority to rule. That moral authority belongs to God. Which is why Jesus quickly adds that one must pay to God the things that are due to God.
But the “coinage” of God’s kingdom is of a radically different nature than that of Caesar. God does not trade in Caesar’s currency. The whole nature and trajectory of God’s kingdom that Jesus has inaugurated, and is inviting people to participate in, is fundamentally at odds with Caesar’s. Which is why while people must pay to both Caesar and God, they must pay them not only for different reasons but in entirely different currencies. Paying to God and participating in the divine kingdom entails repenting of the ways they have been complicit in the Roman empire and its agenda. Paradoxically, then, people should pay taxes empire has imposed upon them while actively resisting it and working to promote the alternative kingdom.
Jesus is complicating his listeners’ paradigm for engaging to the empire. For communities that are dealing with oppressive and violent regimes, the choices are never as clear cut as paying taxes or flatly refusing to pay—literally or metaphorically. Challenging the empire and undermining its oppressive powers requires lot of negotiation, tact and imagination. Not paying taxes will not necessarily bring the empire down. The questions is—what will? Within the context of Matthew’s Gospel, the Beatitudes suggests that whatever brings wholeness, transformation and healing to communities is a form of resistance to imperial worldview and ethos, and thus perhaps the form of coinage required of disciples especially in divisive times.
If we explicate the issue of paying taxes metaphorically in our times, some questions for us are: How do we as Christians negotiate political spaces tactfully with oppressive regimes without legitimating them? How do we remain hopeful and committed to God’s kingdom and its worldview in the face of persistent evil? What are the mechanisms—the coinage—we need to put in place in order to transform the current reality and bring about a different reality that would be more acceptable to God?
- Stanley Saunders, Preaching The Gospel of Matthew (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 227.
- Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Socio-Political Reading, 439.