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 our current reading, it is Holy Week. Jesus is in Jerusalem. He has made His Triumphal Entry into the city, cleansed the temple, and been questioned by the leadership. He has responded already with His own questions and parables. In yesterday's reading, Jesus answered and spoke to them again by parables and said: "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 the 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?" 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. The Herodians are a party clearly "close" to Herod; that is, to the house of Herod the Great. They are possibly a priestly party of members of the house of Herod (sons of one of his wives) made priest by him. By the name it is indicated that they are close to the state power, which means that of Gentiles, the Romans who serve Caesar. Commentators note also that the Pharisees did not come themselves, but sent their disciples. So the trap is laid indirectly, through those who represent the Pharisees, with witnesses present close to the state power of Rome. The question is a trap. If Jesus answers "No," that it is not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, then He could be brought on a charge of treason by the Romans. If He answers "Yes," then this would turn the people against Him. But Jesus' answer defeats them on both counts. By asking the image on the coin, Jesus gives a lesson about life. My study bible says that while all things come under the jurisdiction of God, the Lord over all of life, the fulfillment of governmental requirements that don't conflict with responsibilities to God is appropriate (see Romans 13:1-7, contrast with Acts 4:19, 5:29). Fulfilling such responsibilities is not detrimental to holiness. My study bible tells us that as the coin bears the image of the emperor and is properly paid to him, so each person bears the image of God and therefore belongs to Him. Conflict arises only when the state demands that which is contrary to God.
It's interesting to consider the images on the coins, because Jesus has already overturned the tables of the money changers when He cleansed the temple. At that time, He said, "It is written, 'My house shall be called a hose of prayer,' but you have made it a 'den of thieves.'" Perhaps the Pharisees, in sending their disciples along with the Herodians, imagined that in the cleansing of the temple Jesus was displaying a pure contempt for commerce and for money (and if so, they've clearly missed the point, which might well be in keeping with everything else we read in the Gospel). So they planned to trap Him, in front of the Herodians as witness, if He should say that it is not legal to pay taxes to Caesar. The reason that Roman money was exchanged for temple currency in the first place was because the image of Caesar on the Roman coins was considered by the leadership to be defiling to the temple. Furthermore their question is reminiscent of another question put to Jesus through Peter, when in Capernaum Peter was asked, "Does your Teacher not pay the temple tax?" In some sense, Jesus gave Peter a similar teaching about honoring worldly obligations by teaching that "the sons are free," meaning that He should not really have this obligation, but that to avoid offense, they would pay. This happened through marvelous means, with Jesus instructing Peter to cast a hook into the sea, take up the first fish, and there would be a piece of money in its mouth with which to pay the temple tax. Each incident seems to be clearly indicating a proper way to approach not only worldly obligations, but issues of money. The "den of thieves" is inappropriate to the temple. And the cleansing of the temple isn't the only time Jesus rails against the Pharisees for their greed and hypocrisy. In the next chapter of Matthew, He will tell them, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation" (23:14). The common issue in these questions about taxes and the hypocrisy of religious practices having to do with money, commerce, and taxation is the burdens placed on the people. Again, in chapter 23, He will teach His disciples and the crowd in the temple, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do to be seen by men" (23:2-5). To bind heavy burdens is to place on the people an onerous weight; to fail to move them with even one finger is to lack all mercy and to be unrighteous. In all of these teachings, Jesus distinguishes between what goes on in the house of God as an expression of God's love and will, and practices that are acceptable or common in the marketplace. My study bible is careful to say that Jesus isn't separating our lives into the secular and the sacred. Rather, worldly obligations needn't necessarily conflict with our first responsibility to God. We honor the obligations that we have as part of the way in which we have been given our faith, and part of a righteous life. It is oddly like the parable He gave in yesterday's reading about the wedding feast, and the guest not wearing the garment provided by the king (see above). Life presents us with obligations, and those that do not conflict with our first responsibility to God are also honored appropriately. Jesus does not present us with an impossible philosophical or ideological task of destroying all worldly systems and commerce and power. But what He does teach is righteousness and discernment. He asks of us to be wise as serpents and simple as doves, and to be always awake for His return. In our own dealings with others, we are asked to live righteous lives.