Matthew 22:15-22 - Tricky Questions
Matthew 22:15Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21They 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.” 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Background: The people in authority are becoming more and more nervous about Jesus. His teaching upsets the status quo and his popularity with ordinary people is growing. Immediately after Jesus’ pointed parable about the wedding banquet, representatives of two influential groups come to him in a public place with a trick question. Rarely could you find more uneasy bedfellows than the Pharisees and the Herodians. Just about the only thing they held in common was their disdain of Jesus. The Herodians were a priestly group whose power based was formed largely from making strategic alliances with the Roman occupiers. The Pharisees were a fervent group of lay people who were interested in a strict adherence to the law of Moses and saw themselves as keeping the zeal of the Old Testament prophets alive. For the Pharisees, the compromises with pagan Rome of the Herodians were unthinkable.
Taxes in Jesus’ Day: Then as now, taxation was a big issue for Jewish citizens. There were a number of different kinds of taxes depending on the kind of rule in the particular Jewish province. There were land taxes, poll taxes, import taxes and taxes for the operation of the Temple. It was common for a Jew to pay 40% or more of income in taxes and religious dues. The particular tax referred to here was the per capita tax that all Jews had to pay to Rome to support the government. The tax was equal to about a days wage and had to be paid in Roman currency. Some Jews coped with this as a matter of daily living, appreciating at least some of what the government offered to them. Most, though, greeted the thought of paying this tax to the pagan emperor with emotions ranging from irritation to downright insurrection. To make matters worse the coin that had to be used to pay the tax had an image of Caesar Tiberius on it and carried the deeply despised inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus and high priest.” Many pious Jews refused to even carry these coins, claiming that to do so was blasphemy.
What is at stake here? The Pharisees and the Herodians want to discredit Jesus so they come up with a plan to trick him in public. Rabbis at this time often honed their theological and debate skills by posing tough questions and answering them for each other. This question, however is no win. If Jesus says yes, which in a way he does, that taxes should be paid to Caesar then he risks alienating his base almost completely. If he says no, he risks being arrested by Rome as a dangerous political agitator.
Vs. 16 – We know that you are good….this is clearly insincere flattery designed to throw Jesus off and disarm him. It almost seems tongue in cheek. NT scholar Tom Long says it meant something like, “Ok mister truth-teller who never shies away from controversy, handle this hot potato.”
Vs. 17 – Is it lawful – they want to know if the Torah, the law of Moses, speaks to this head tax and allows it to be paid.
Vs. 18 – But Jesus, aware of their malice – literally: knowing the evil of them.
Hypocrites – we see much more use of this word in later chapters. It comes from a word that originally referred to actors playing a part. Later it came to be associated both with play acting and insincerity, particularly to make oneself look better.
Vs. 19-20 – Gotcha! Jesus asks them to produce the coin in question. They do so, showing that they carried the coin that the pious spurned. Jesus did not have one. They had already made their accommodations to Rome, even while vocally refusing to do so.
Vs. 22 – amazed – troubled, in awe, dazed, undone.
Questions for Personal Reflection
1. When you think about the role of government in your life, for what services are you most grateful? Roads? Schools? Public safety?
2. When Jesus says to give to God what belongs to God, what do you think he means? Are there things to which God does not have a claim?
3. Are there any ways that you find yourself trying to find wiggle room in Jesus’ teaching? Have you ever felt others trying to trip you up about your faith? How did you handle that?