Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk. And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men. Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?" But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, "Why do you test Me, you hypocrites? Show Me the tax money." So they brought Him a denarius. And He said to them, "Whose image and inscription is this?" They said to Him, "Caesar's." And He said to them, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left Him and went their way.
- Matthew 22:15-22
In the readings leading to today's, we are in Jerusalem and it is Holy Week. Jesus has made the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, cleansed the temple, and been questioned by the leadership as to His authority. He spoke to them warning of the "chief cornerstone" that the builders rejected, asserting His own authority. In yesterday's reading, He told the parable of the wedding feast: "The kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who arranged a marriage for his son, and sent out his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding; and they were not willing to come. Again, he sent out other servants, saying, 'Tell those who are invited, "See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and fatted cattle are killed, and all things are ready. Come to the wedding.' " But they made light of it and went their ways, one to his own farm, another to his business. And the rest seized his servants, treated them spitefully, and killed them. But when the king heard about it, he was furious. And he sent out his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city. Then he said to his servants, 'The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. Therefore go into the highways, and as many as you find, invite to the wedding.' So those servants went out into the highways and gathered together all whom they found, both bad and good. And the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man there who did not have on a wedding garment. So he said to him, 'Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment?' And he was speechless. Then the king said to the servants, 'Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' For many are called, but few are chosen."
Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk. And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men. Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?" Here's another question that is basically designed to be a trap. We notice how the crowds play a role here: all the action is situated with the backdrop of what the crowds think. The leadership fear the crowds, and their respect for itinerant or charismatic holy men such as John the Baptist and Jesus. Here the question "uses" the fear of the crowds in order to attempt to trap Jesus: if He says one thing He will be considered a revolutionary against the Romans and can be accused; another answer will mean the people will perceive Him to be a collaborator with them. The Herodians are followers of Herod Antipas, who rules in the name of Rome, and who executed the Baptist.
But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, "Why do you test Me, you hypocrites? Show Me the tax money." So they brought Him a denarius. And He said to them, "Whose image and inscription is this?" There's a little literary "trick" here in today's reading. When the leadership falsely flatter Jesus by telling Him that He does not "regard the person of men," the language is written so that they literally say that Jesus doesn't regard the "face" of men. "Person" and "face" are important intertwined theological notions in the Greek. So here, Jesus "turns the tables" (as in the cleansing of the temple) once again, by pointing literally to the image (Gr. "icon") or face of Caesar on the coin, and the inscription which makes the coin an extension of the rule of Caesar. What we notice also is that Jesus won't give an inch, and clearly expresses His understanding of what is in their hearts, calling them openly "hypocrites" -- those who wear a mask (like ancient actors, which the word hypocrite originally means), while underneath they are someone else. Here, my study bible tells us that "Jesus constantly demonstrates He is divine as well as human. Here again He does so by (1) revealing the secrets of their hearts, and (2) silencing them through His questions."
They said to Him, "Caesar's." And He said to them, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." When they had heard these words, they marveled, and left Him and went their way. My study bible says that "the distinction between the things that are Caesar's and things that are God's does not imply a division of life into two domains, the secular and the sacred. Rather, God is Lord over all. We must fulfill legitimate governmental requirements which do not conflict with our responsibility toward God (Romans 13:7). Paying taxes and similar duties are not detrimental to godliness. The fact that the Jewish establishment had a Roman coin in hand proved they accepted and used this coin, thereby accepting the earthly rule of the one who issued it."
When we speak of "person" in theological terms, the word actually comes from a Greek word for "face" (prosopon). It's linked to the notion of "icon" or "image." Throughout this discourse in the temple, there's a sort of "hidden in plain sight" question and theme that is played out behind the literal words being used. The leadership begins by asking Jesus, "By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?" This goes, really, to the question of Jesus' identity, who He really is, His person. His authority is in His true personhood, as Son. And that's the big question left hanging up in the air, here. How do people perceive Jesus? Do they understand that He is the Christ? The other idea hidden here is a question about how faith leads us to perceive true personhood, the image that God creates. Jesus' discernment allows Him to see the difference between the reality of what one is created to be, and what one has done with that "image." Moreover, He perceives the hearts of people, the motivations behind the masks they wear. When Jesus turns the tables on His questioners by asking about the face on the coin, and when He calls them hypocrites, He's unmasking everyone and everything. There's no hypocrisy in Him at all; by the human institution of government, a ruler institutes taxes. But, of course, there's a deeper underlying reality here: the focus on taxes is almost beside the point, and the real question becomes: whose inscription and face is in us and in our hearts? Who are they serving? What is most important to them? The focus on the coin masks what is of really essential importance. As you go about your day, I think it's important to wonder, amid the demands of the time, where our loyalty lies. What's most important? Whose inscription is in the soul, in the heart? What image do we wish to emulate? It's always in the heart that Jesus' truth takes shape and focus; it's there we return consistently throughout the Gospels. As we move deeper into Advent, the coming of the Light, let us consider which image we treasure most. Is it the one God has placed within us, or the one the world would shape us into?