By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
October 18, 2020
Matthew 22:15–22 (ESV)
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. 16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.
Is it lawful to pay taxes? This is one of the conversations with Jesus that keeps intriguing me. Contrary to what many might believe I am a very conservative individual, and this passage is one that continues to come to mind. It strikes at the intersection of my spiritual and ideological planes of though. It is often at this point where the concept of faith become a reality.
The ideologies of men pounce on this passage with the hopes of utilizing it to convince the followers of Christ to support their agendas, but like many proof texting activities this exercise basically renders scripture impotent. If two opposite positions use the same passage to support their position clearly the truth nature of the passage has been missed.
What exactly is going on in this passage? To begin we really need to look at who is involved in the conversation. The first people mentioned are the Pharisees. Because we live in a seemingly dualistic culture, we often attribute the characteristics of our society onto the groups we see within scripture. I have heard and have probably perpetuated the illustration that the pharisees could be one of our dominate political parties where the Sadducees would embody the other. This illustration is ineffective because these groups are not governmental entities but are instead religious or theological schools of thought. When we try to say the pharisees are republicans and the Sadducees are democrats we develop within our minds ideas about what they might stand for or against because of what we might think. We should not do this. Both groups were part of the Jewish council, both were active in the work of educating the generations of faith. Both had scholars and following. But their concern was not the politics of man, but the politics of the organizational structures of religion. The Sadducees largely focused on the ceremonial aspects of temple worship, whereas the pharisees grew out of the years of exile where the Israel was attempting to formulate a religious identity when there was not a temple complex to support activities of devotion.
The Pharisees were devoted religious leaders attempting to carry their faith into a changing era of history. They were looking at the revelations of God through the Torah and the prophets, made interpretations, and formulated systematic disciplines to attach devotion. This discipleship was then promoted though the synagogues within the various Jewish communities. These disciplines included instructions and means of providing charitable aid to those in need.
We look at these religious leaders with disdain because so often they are opponents of Jesus, but the reality of life is that these faithful men were often righteous and respectable. They were devoted to their faith and their God, in respect to their religious interpretation. We would likely desire their participation in our own fellowship.
We look at this passage and we wonder then why they would be opposed to Jesus, and why would they test him in this particular manner? Is it lawful to pay the tax? We might be tempted to think that maybe the Pharisees were against taxation, I mean I would like that to be the case because I am not too fond of them, but that is not the whole truth. There is a long tradition to the gathering of funds to use to encourage those in need among the Hebrew people. Early in their history they began the voluntary giving of their profits for the glory of God and for the encouragement of the people. The tithe we so often hear about in churches began with Abraham, but that was just the first of the religious financial offerings. When Moses established the tent of meeting there was a financial obligation that would have to be paid before a worshiper would have an opportunity to offer their sacrifices. And then when we consider the actual cost of the offerings, we can begin to sense the large financial commitment Israel was accustomed to paying to be an upstanding member of their society. If we were to break all of that down the offerings were not a simple ten percent of their income but much higher, some have suggested that it would have been closer to thirty or forty percent of their annual profits. Jesus mentioned that the Pharisees were diligent to this practice, even going so far as including the potential value of the mint and other herbs that grow wild on their properties. The Pharisees were not against giving and investing into their community, but they did have issue with additional imperial taxation.
This brings us to the second group of people in this conversation, the Herodians. Within the New Testament scriptures there are three social groups mentioned. The most common is the Pharisees, the second group is the Sadducees, the third group referred to as the Herodians is only mentioned a couple of times. Little is known about the Sadducees outside of scripture because they were connected to the temple, and when the temple was destroyed much of their history was destroyed along with it. Even less is known about the Herodians. The reason put forth by scholars is that little is known about this group because it was not necessarily an autonomous group. The conclusion is that those labeled as Herodians are those within the community that accepted the governmental rule of Rome through the descendants of Herod. When we take that into consideration one could be a pharisee and a Herodian, or a Sadducee and a Herodian. They are simply a branch of people that did not embrace a revolutionary mindset and live their lives within the systems they find themselves in. One could imagine that being labeled a Herodian could have some social stigma.
Again, we often look at these labels and make judgements, but I want us to think about something. Jesus had an apostle named Phillip; this is a name that is Greek in origin. Jesus also had a disciple known as Matthew who was called to follow from his tax collection table. Both disciples could be considered Herodians. Let us consider other figures from scripture, the apostle we know as Paul called himself a Pharisee, he goes so far to consider himself as one of the greatest pharisees, yet Paul was a Roman citizen. Paul could be considered a Herodian. One could be considered a righteous practitioner of the Jewish faith, while still accepting the rule of Rome. One could even accept the rule of Rome, while being considered an upstanding member of the Jewish society. It is clear historically that most of the Jewish population opposed the rule of Rome, because within the first century the rebellions of the Jewish people lead to war with the Romans. But there were some within the community that looked upon the rule of Rome as those that were exiled to Babylon, they made their homes and established themselves within the culture they found themselves in.
The Pharisees and the Herodians both had trouble accepting Jesus. They were concerned because his influence threatened to tip the balances of power these groups held within the community. Jesus was challenging the Pharisees’ interpretation of scripture, and the increasing size of the multitudes that followed Jesus could be the beginnings of open rebellion. Both groups were nervous and hoped to end Jesus’s ministry. They come together to challenge him and ask, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?
I am not going to stand here and say that the people of ancient Israel were not being exploited at the hands of Rome. Anything and everything you could think of was taxed. Their produce was taxed, their land was taxed, the use of the temple was taxed, if they traveled on an actual road they were taxed. Jesus was born in Bethlehem because Rome wanted to be able to tax people more efficiently. But taxation is not really the issue, it was where the taxes were going to that was the problem. The question is not is it lawful to pay taxes, but is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?
These two opposing ideologies were joining forces to test Jesus because in their mind any answer that Jesus would give could be used against him. If Jesus said yes you should pay taxes to Caesar, then every person that was opposed to Roman rule would come down on him. And if he said paying taxes to Caesar was against their religious faith, Jesus would have been charged for treason. This is the type of question that we love in our culture today. We love these questions that seem to have only two possible answers. We love these types of questions yet they are ripping our nation and even our church apart.
We can turn on the tv and nearly every channel will have an advertisement telling us that we should oppose or support someone based on a question like the one given to Jesus. We should not vote for this candidate because they said this or that. And If you agree with this answer then this candidate is the one for you. We base everything within our nation on loaded questions asked in a manner that are often answered in a single syllable answer. Is it lawful to pay the tax? Yes or no? Jesus saw through the hypocrisy of the question. He knew that they were attempting to force him to answer with one word so that they could pounce. How does Jesus respond?
Jesus asks them to hand him the coin to pay the tax, he looks at it, maybe he even flips it in the air for dramatic effect, and then he holds it up in front his accusers. He answers their question by asking them a question of his own, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” Do we recognize the depth of that question?
By asking that question Jesus is causing his accusers to acknowledge something profound, ownership. Caesar created or commissioned the minting of the coin. The coin itself is the property of Caesar distributed to others as a tool of trade. That piece of metal has value because it is supported by the power and authority of the one whose image it bears. Outside of the Roman Empire that coin’s only value is the fair market value of the metal when it is melted down, but within the Empire that coin’s value is the equivalent of day’s wage. When we live in an area where that coin’s value is respected there are conditions to use it. Those conditions are determined by the one whose image and inscription it bears. If the issuer of the currency demands fees or taxes for the use of that currency, we must comply or we are in violation of the social contract of the currency. And we pay those fees, because the issuer of the currency has the strength to enforce that contract.
But wait I earned that money through my labor it is mine. The reality is that we make trades. We traded our labor for the currency we hold. We do not own the currency, because that currency is only a tool used as a place holder for trade. I work an hour for a certain amount of currency and I am able to trade that currency for goods and services for as long as that currency has value, but if the value of that currency disappears I am left with paper.
“Look at the coin,” Jesus says, whose coin is it? We know because it bears the image of the true owner. And Jesus tell his testers to give Caesar what is Caesar’s. And he goes on to say, “And to God the things that are God’s.” The coin is Caesar’s because it bears his image, but what then are the things that are God’s? The things that bear God’s image.
In the story of creation, we are told that God said, “Let us create man in our image.” We are created in the image of God, and we are bearers of that image. Every human being in this world bears that image. That means we all have value to God. Have you really thought of that?
How often do we walk through life thinking that we are insignificant and worthless? We compare ourselves to those around us. That person appears to be successful and we agree they have value, but that person holding the sign on the corner by Walmart, do they hold as much value? We make judgment based on human concepts, often measured in terms of currency. Yet the reality is that God values each human life to such a degree that he gave himself for us. God values you so much that he gave his own life to redeem, purchase, or ransom you. To God you are worth as much as Jeff Bezos. You are worth as much as Warren Buffet, Bill Gate, and Donald Trump. To God that person on the corner by Walmart is priceless.
But do we treat ourselves and those around us as if we have value? When we compare candidates in an election do, we recognize the value God places on them? When we consider those who support those candidates do, we recognize the value God places on them? When we look at those in this meeting do, we consider the value God places on them? Or do we look instead at the measure mankind places on them? When we use the measures of humankind, we are looking at the toolbox. They might have a lot of tools in that box, which is all currency is, but do they know how to really use them? Are they using that which God has given them to encourage and enrich their community or do they just have shiny tools packed away in a box?
These two groups approached Jesus with a test, and Jesus avoided their accusations by causing them to assess the image. Currency is the tool of men because it bears the image of man. Human life bears the image of God. If we are the image bearers of God, we are the currency of God’s economy. If we are to give God the things that are God’s everything, we do should be focused on him and his glory. God gave his son to live with us, to teach and show us how to live. He gave his son to pay the wages of sin for us by taking on our sin and shame to the cross. He valued us so much that he endured death for three days buried in a tomb, and his joy is made complete when life is restored on that third day.
Give Caesar what is Caesar’s and give God that which is God’s.