Commentary on Matthew 22:15-22
You can currently purchase online both a book, the title of which is Jesus is Not a Republican, and a T-shirt claiming that “Jesus Votes Republican.”
And, of course, you can find the converse claims and denials about Jesus being a Democrat. Judging from the gospel text for the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, the Jesus portrayed in Matthew was not so easily pinned down on political issues in his day.
In Matthew 21-22, representatives from a number of Jewish leadership groups come to Jesus with questions: questions about his authority (21:23-27); questions about the resurrection (22:23-33); and questions about the Law (22:34-40). The question in Matthew 22:17 is brought by disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians, an unlikely pairing of partisans, if the Herodians represent the interests of Herod and other clients of Rome within his circle. Yet representatives of both groups come in order to “trap” Jesus by providing him with a lose/lose situation. But first they smooth the way by speaking of Jesus’ integrity, commitment to truth and equity, and lack of concern for the opinions of others (22:16).
Their question is short and to the point: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” The tax in view is the census tax, a per person tax of a denarius (22:19). The conundrum for Jesus is this: If he answers yes, then he could be perceived as in collusion with Rome, justifying Roman occupation and oppression of the Jews. This would not be a popular answer among the Jewish people. On the other hand, if Jesus answers no, he could be suspected of revolutionary sentiment against Rome.
Jesus answers and shows that he is aware of their trickery. He calls them “hypocrites,” because they show something on the outside (flattery) that is quite opposite of what is true internally (evil intent; see Matthew 6:1-17 and 23:13-32 for Jesus’ indictment of hypocrisy). Jesus calls for a coin–a denarius− presumably the cost of the tax, and he asks them to identify whose image is on the coin. When they identify the emperor’s face and title (Kai/sarov), Jesus delivers an amazing and rather ambiguous one-liner: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (22:21).
The key interpretive issue of this passage rests in the meaning of this statement. The first clause on its own indicates that the tax should be paid, since the emperor’s image and inscription on the coin would cause it to fall under “things that are the emperor’s.” On the other hand, the final clause places a question mark on what belongs to whom! Given Jesus’ repeated use of the Old Testament highlighted throughout Matthew and his preaching of the arrival of God’s kingdom, it is difficult to imagine that Jesus would see much of anything falling outside of “the things that are God’s” (see Psalm 24:1– “The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.”).
The beauty of Jesus’ answer is that he both concedes payment of the census tax while subverting the reach of the emperor. If read one way, Jesus’ answer is simply an affirmation of Christian submission to governing authorities. Yet if read from another angle, Jesus affirms the all encompassing reach of God’s ownership in a way that relativizes imperial claims of right to rule. The denarius which Jesus called his questioners to produce read “Tiberius Caesar, August Son of the Divine Augustus” on one side and “Pontifex Maximus” (high priest) on the other. Into the reverberation of such all encompassing and even idolatrous claims, Jesus here reasserts God’s ownership and rule.
How is it that we might hear the impact of this story in our own contexts? What are the all-encompassing claims of ownership and right that Jesus would relativize for his people today? At the core, the issues raised by this biblical passage are ones of allegiance. If God owns all, then we belong to God alone. Yet we live a life in which competing powers and influences vie to own us, to sway us, to capture our hearts. The tendency, for example, for what we own to exert ownership on us (“you cannot serve both money and God”) means we need to guard against consumerism and materialism as competing allegiances to our loyalty to God. The questions raised by this text and our preaching of it must address the call of Jesus to live in whole hearted allegiance to God, while navigating in life contexts that often pull at that allegiance. Such navigation is not easy, and we would do well to seek God’s wisdom and discernment as we desire to follow Jesus in a world full of siren songs. Yet Jesus is the source of God’s wisdom–his wisdom shows through in his answer to this test by the Pharisees and Herodians.
In the end, these questioners of Jesus go away amazed (22:22). Amazement is not such a bad response to seek to reproduce in those to whom we are preaching. If they, and we, would leave an encounter with this biblical text amazed at the Jesus portrayed there–a Jesus not easily categorized, a Jesus wise in his answers to testing, a Jesus whose first allegiance is to the all-encompassing scope of God’s reign–then we will have done our job.