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 unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." When they heard these words, they marveled, and left Him and went their way.
- Matthew 22:15-22
In yesterday's reading, Jesus told us the parable of the king who arranged a marriage for his son. He sent out his servants to call his people to the wedding, but nobody was willing to come. He sent yet more servants, who described all the preparations for this wedding feast -- everything was ready. But those invited made fun of it, they left for their own work and projects. The rest of them seized the servants, abused and even killed them. When the king heard this, he was furious. He sent his armies to destroy the murderers, and burn their city. So he sent out his servants again, saying that although the wedding feast was ready, his guests were not worthy. This time, they are to go into the highways, and invite everybody they find. So the wedding hall was filled with guests, bad and good. The king saw one man without a wedding garment, and he asked, "How did you come in here without a wedding garment?" But the man was speechless. Jesus taught, "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. So far, in Jesus' encounters in the temple in Jerusalem, we've read that the leadership feared to openly lay their hands on Him in front of the crowds. He's considered a prophet, a holy man. So, here we have an introduction: they need to trap Him.
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?" In the earlier encounters with the leadership, Jesus was speaking with the chief priests and the elders, after His cleansing of the temple. They had demanded to know His authority for doing the things He was doing there. But here, it is the Pharisees he's encountering, together with the Herodians. So many of the religious practices He's opposed come from the Pharisees and their teachings. The different parties in the leadership in Israel played slightly different roles and had a variety of perspectives. The Herodians would be those close to the party of Herod -- the ruler who was a stand-in for Rome. So, this trap attempts to trap Jesus by His own words: He's going to answer either sounding like a revolutionary against Rome, or a collaborator with the Romans. That's their intention.
But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, "Why do you test Me, you hypocrites? Show me the tax money." Of course, Jesus sees through their question and to their intentions. We saw with the chief priests and elders that He answered a question with a question. As he's overturned the tables of the money-changers, so he turned the tables on them, by trapping them instead so they couldn't answer for fear of the crowds. Here, He once again sees through to motive, and will respond in kind yet again.
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 unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." We remember the issue of the temple money exchange -- and how Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers. This was a sensitive subject in the temple, based on whose image was on those Roman coins. In Jesus' reply is a kind of interesting parallel to the cleansing, because in some sense it recalls for us the important words of the psalmist: Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise. You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise (Psalm 51:15-17). The question hidden here is, "What belongs to Caesar, and what belongs to God?" Again, He's trying to make His own adversaries think. My study bible points out that there's no contradiction here; everything belongs to God. But we start with the heart, and we put one thing first. The fact that Caesar demands taxes doesn't necessarily mean we don't also honor worldly institutions. But He's just finished with the cleansing of the temple, which included disrupting the money changers who exchange Roman coin for temple coin, so that animals may be sold to pilgrims inside the temple. What belongs to what realm here? Let's remember His words then, because they become relevant again here: "It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer,' but you have made it a 'den of thieves.'" So, again, we can ask the implied questions: Who is showing real authority here? Whose authority is respected in the temple? Just because they exchange the coin -- does that mean they have left the realm of Caesar and truly honor God? Especially among the party of the Herodians that accompany the students of the Pharisees, there is a hidden accusation here, and a great irony.
When they heard these words, they marveled, and left Him and went their way. He has once again confounded His accusers, stumped them, and there is nothing they can do but marvel and go their way. The question of Jesus returns a question for them, just as with the previous encounter when He was questioned about His authority. Again, we return to questions of authority here -- what belongs to Caesar, and what belongs to God? The image of Caesar is on the coin, Whose image must be in our hearts? For what purpose does God seek a contrite spirit, and a broken and contrite heart?
Again, we are reminded that so much of Matthew's gospel has been taken up with questions of leadership among the faithful disciples, which lead us to questions of authority in the temple. Quite simply, we put God first in our hearts. My study bible says, "The distinction between 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 (Rom. 13:7)." So, let us consider, then, Jesus' teaching, and what questions it asks of us. What are we turning our hearts to? On what do we focus? We know the great story of the Church and how it will be persecuted, and by whom. This story will unfold in martyrdom, in those who sacrifice for the Church, and take up His Cross. We know that He Himself will be rendered up to the Gentiles, and voluntarily give His life in this way. He has no army, but is here to establish a Kingdom, and does so via His sacrifice. An insurrectionist against the Romans, Barabbas, will receive amnesty in His place. In all questions then, we begin with what we render to God, and then we seek discernment for all else. Above all, we don't confuse the ways of one with the ways of the other; we may be called upon for patience, forbearance, love, sacrifice. There are times to speak out, and times to pose questions -- times for confrontation, and times for skillful expression. God's image on our hearts will in turn teach us to use our talents (there's another word from the world of coins), and to live our lives in this world, to discern how best to negotiate each choice. But it all starts there, with that authority and that image, and the ways in which God calls us to live in the world of human institutions. Shall we follow in His Way? We also remember another hallmark of His authority: Peace. Right-relatedness, God's righteousness, is a key to this question.