December 12, 2012
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news today from Matthew 22:15-22.
Then the Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap him in speech. They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin. He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” At that he said to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” When they heard this they were amazed, and leaving him they went away.
The Roman coin had been struck by the Emperor Tiberius, which was stamped with the words, “Tiberius Caesar son of the divine Augustus, great high priest.” That alone was an affront to the Pharisees and all Jews. There was only one divinity — God. However, the Pharisees must have been accustomed to using the coins since they were carrying them. That may be one reason that Jesus calls them hypocrites.
In the ancient world coinage was considered to be the property of whomever had is struck, which is why Jesus tells them to give it back to Caesar to whom it belongs. It’s interesting that the Pharisees brought along the Herodians. These adherents to King Herod were supporters of the Romans; it was in their interest that everyone paid the taxes due to the Emperor. The Pharisees on the other hand were fiercely opposed to paying these taxes; it was a form of blasphemy to acknowledge any king or divinity other than God. So, they thought that they had laid an inescapable trap for Jesus. Either the Herodians would report him to the Romans for sedition leading to his arrest. Or the crowd who resented paying taxes to the Romans would be disappointed in Jesus and disaffected from him.
The Jews were forced to pay three kinds of taxes to the Roman Emperor. A ground tax was levied on produce from the land — one-tenth on grain and one-fifth on oil and wine — and paid both in kind and in coin. An income tax was levied at the rate of 1% of a man’s income. The tax referred to here according to Barclay was a poll tax, which was a kind of tax for simply being alive. Every male from age 14 to 65 and every female from age 12 to 65 owed a denarius every year or the equivalent of a little more than a day’s average wage. You can imagine in those days that hard money was hard to come by and, so, these taxes were despised as a hardship.
One more interesting thing from Barclay. The Jews paid a Temple tax every year — one-half shekel. Remember, though, that Matthew was writing his gospel after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans. Following its destruction the Romans demanded that the Temple tax be paid to the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome. This was a bitter reminder every every year to the Jews of their defeat, humiliation, and subjugation. So, this story would have touched raw nerves in Matthew’s readers.
Jesus separates the secular and the sacred reminding us that we are both citizens of the world and citizens of the kingdom of God. We owe fealty to both. Collectively, we share responsibility for one another through the state. Individually, we are responsible to God for working to establish His kingdom, a kingdom of justice. Sometimes those work at cross purposes and we have to determine for ourselves where our primary responsibility lies. Jesus doesn’t specifically say where, although he certainly makes clear in many other statements that our love of God should come before anything or anyone else. Love of God means obedience to His will.
I find it interesting how the Pharisees described Jesus. Even though their intent was duplicitous, I think they were giving us an accurate portrayal of Jesus. He was acknowledged as a teacher, a teacher of truth, a teacher of the way of God’s will. He was faithful to that truth regardless of what anyone may have thought or said or done, whether rich or poor, powerful or weak, in positions of authority or lowly. High compliments especially coming from his detractors.
Jesus reminds me in this story that the world is not black and white; there often is no clear right or wrong answer. He gives me guidance, but he usually doesn’t tell me exactly what to do. I think it’s because he wants me to think for myself. He wants me to thoughtfully consider God’s will in light of any given situation and discern what is owed to God and what is owed to my government. That is the way of discernment, the way of judgment, the way of wisdom. He has given me free will to decide for myself which paths I will take, which mistakes I will make, which contributions I will offer. He wants me to join Him as His partner, to share His mind, to live in HIs heart in considering the choices that are presented to me everyday. He doesn’t dictate to me; He calls me to enter into His kingdom, into His wisdom. But I always have to answer for myself what I think is right and what is wrong. That’s the wonderful thing about God. He gives me that freedom and that responsibility and hopes for the best result.