March 20 – Matthew 22:15-22

Last week I mentioned that Jesus got three tricky questions while he was teaching in the temple, the last being the question about the greatest commandment we just studied. This week we’ll flip back to the first question, when Jesus got quizzed on whether Jews should pay taxes to Caesar.
With all three questions, Jesus responds with amazingly wise answers for which even his critics can’t find fault. And this is doubly impressive because he was being so closely scrutinized, in this situation specifically by the Pharisees and Herodians (those latter folks being cronies of the Roman governor, Herod Antipas). The passage tells us they had plotted to entangle him in his words, thinking they had an impossible riddle for him when they asked, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”

Two things are worth noting; first, that Jesus intentionally exposed their act. They presented an innocent demeanor, “Teacher, we know that you are true…” acting like humble students asking a rabbi a heartfelt question. But Jesus refused to abide their two-faced schemes: “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites?” God always brings the truth to light. Second, note how they phrase the question, “Is it lawful?” Of course, paying taxes to Rome is lawful under Roman law, but they were asking about the Mosaic Law. This is not merely a legal question but a fundamentally religious and ethical question.

And to be clear, this was a sticky dilemma for Jesus’ day and age. The Jews hated Caesar since Rome, a pagan nation to boot, had conquered their country and slaughtered Jewish men and women in repeated uprisings, such as that led by Judas the Galilean around 6 AD (cf. Acts 4:37). There have been many figures, like Judas, who had arisen as potential messiahs. They all led the people in revolt, promising an end to Roman oppression and taxation, and were all brutally and thoroughly crushed. So, if Jesus says, “Yes, it is lawful,” then the Pharisees assume this reveals the so-called revolutionary messiah as a pushover syncretist. If, on the other hand, Jesus says, “No! Stop paying taxes, Israel is free,” he will be declaring a revolution and, just like his messianic predecessors, Rome would ensure his demise. Therein lies the trap: Jesus can either relinquish his claim as Messiah or die at the hands of Rome, proving he’s not one.

But Jesus met their challenge brilliantly: “Show me the coin.” Jesus pointed to the image and inscription on the coin and said, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” That pleased the Herodians and cleared him of inciting insurrection, and surely the Pharisees were beginning to rejoice at the sound of this supposed Messiah bowing to Rome: coinage in Jesus’ time had an inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus” on one side and on the other side an image of the Roman goddess, Pax. The coin was blatantly, offensively pagan to the most zealous Jewish nationalists (like Judas the Galilean).

However, Jesus continued, “and render to God what is God’s.” The call is clear and staggering. Give to Caesar what belongs to him. How do we know what that is? Simple. It bears his image. But also, give to God what belongs to him. How do we know what that is? Simple. It bears His image.

This dynamic has everything to say about how we live as citizens of the Kingdom of God, and here we receive two very practical insights. First, you bear the image of God. We all do, doubters, seekers, and followers, regardless of race, ethnicity, age, socio-economic status, gender, sexual orientation, educational level, or political affiliation. Bearing the image of God means you come from God, you belong to God, and your life is meant to be given back to God. The revolution doesn’t start with symbols of oppression and liberation—though they will be addressed—it begins with human beings worshiping their creator, rendering to God all that belongs to him. This is the call and cost of heavenly citizenship, everything and nothing less.

Second, the Kingdom of God is an already-but-not-yet reality. This means followers live as dual citizens until such time as the fullness of God’s redemptive work is complete and Christ returns. For the people Jesus was speaking to, “render to Caesar what is his” meant continuing to pay taxes even as they lived lives as free citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. However, the way this is done is revolutionized by the reality of the Kingdom. Jesus’ followers would no longer render unto Caesar as slaves of Caesar, and no thought would ever be given to giving to Caesar what only rightfully belongs to God, their worship and whole-souled devotion.

For us today this means we pay taxes, obey the law, participate in civil life, and exercise our civic responsibilities, but all this we do as citizens of heaven first. Guided by the justice, economy, and hierarchy of God’s kingdom. We do not fall into the trap the Pharisees set for Jesus, having to decide between insurrection or syncretism. Instead, we are citizens of heaven with a wholly different priority system. We are fully in, but not of, the world, sojourners somewhere on the way to our true home.
Questions for Discussion
• Could someone read Matthew 22:15-22 for us?

• What stood out to you in this passage?

• How do you think the Pharisees hoped to entrap Jesus with this question?

• What can Jesus’ response tell us about his kingdom?

• What do you think it means to “render to God the things that are God’s”?

• How can this passage guide followers of Jesus to live in the world?

• What is most challenging to you about that way of life?

• How can this passage encourage our worship?