Tribute To Caesar

Ordinary 29A

Matthew 22: 15 22

Introduction

Immediately prior to this event, our Lord had told three parables distinctly aimed at reaching out to the religious authorities who were staunchly rejecting his teaching. Jesus knew this was going to be an uphill battle. And so it was.

The first two parables emphasised the need for listening to what God says, and obeying him; thus bearing fruit. The third one showed the need to be clothed in God's holiness (God's wholeness), which Jesus freely offered. Instead of hearing what our Lord was saying, and going away to put it into practice, they went away to plan his destruction. In doing this, they showed they had not heard nor understood him, and were totally devoid of the fruit he warned they must produce.

For an introductory overview read The Gospel Story by R.Cox.

Some Notes On the Text

Verse 15

Then the Pharisees went out
 and laid plans to trap him in his words.

They had been completely outflanked in their attempt to discredit Jesus in front of his Temple audience. They would have taken him into custody but with so many supporters present, there was too much to risk. Accordingly they retired to an office out of the reach of the public, and there they decided to select from among their own followers, the most experienced debaters, and trap Jesus with his own words. For added support, they also made plans with the supporters of Herod's corrupt puppet government of the Romans.

Verse 16

They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. "Teacher," they said, "we know you are a man if integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are."

Interestingly, when the entourage arrived at the place where Jesus was sitting, they addressed him as a top-ranking rabbi. They then paid their respects, in Jewish custom, before proceeding. Since these were possibly, what we might term, "trainee rabbis," there was no need to consider their introductory comments as totally insincere.

Verse 17

However polite their opening remarks, the representatives soon got down to business. They challenged Jesus in a typical rabbinic debate hoping that he would become so absorbed with giving an adequate answer, that he might make some comments which could be used to have him charged with a criminal offence.

Tell us then what is your opinion?
Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? (or more literally:)
Is it right to pay the poll-tax to Caesar or not?

Verse 18

But Jesus knowing their evil intent, said, "You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?" 

He thereby signalled to them that he knew they were playing to an audience, and then asked the reason for their action. In this way, our Lord matched their malice with his wisdom to try and stir their consciences. If only they would pause to answer his question, they might take a look at themselves and realise he had much to teach them, and they had much they needed to learn from him. Our Lord then formally answered their question, but did so very skilfully on his own terms.

Verses 19 - 21

"Show me the coin used for paying the tax." They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, "Whose portrait is this? And who inscription?" "Caesar's," they replied. Then he said to them, "Render, therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's. and to God, the things that are God's."

Pause For Reflection On the Text

It is the disciples of the Herodians and the Pharisees who initiated this encounter. Jesus therefore, as usual, went along with their contrived scenario and used it to try and give them a chance to change the direction of their lives. He shrewdly asked for a coin. Special copper coins without the hated Roman Imperial images were minted for normal commerce among Jews. The Temple tribute was paid in Jewish shekels. Therefore, apart from when the poll tax was paid there was no need to carry Roman coinage.

When Jesus said, "Show me the coin used for paying the tax," it was tantamount to saying, "I do not possess the coin used to pay tribute to the Emperor; you show me." They quickly produced a denarius. That was the opportunity for Jesus to confront them in a way they would, if they wished, understand and benefit from.

The denarius bore an image of the Emperor's head and the inscription (in Latin) "Tiberius Caesar, son of the diviner Augustus." On the other side was the inscription "pontifex maximus", high priest. So offensive was this, that devout Jews would carry it only when they had to, and certainly never in the Temple precincts.

When he gave his judgement, Jesus indicated that one is obliged to render (to pay back) to Caesar what is lawfully his; but equally is one obliged to render to God what is his! He was implying, "You who seem so troubled about carrying a coin with pagan imagery and inscriptions, suddenly have no difficulty producing it when you want to! I don't carry it on me. But since you are so willing to do so, when it suits, you must pay Caesar his tribute for the privilege of benefiting from the whole imperial system he represents."

So far Jesus has dealt only with the hypocrisy of his protagonists. But that is of less importance than their religious obligations. He quickly applied the same logic to fulfilling one's obligations to God, who created us in his image. The main emphasis in the teaching of Jesus had been giving God his due: producing good fruit. He saw himself as restoring the image of God to our whole being, and teaching all that this involved and implied.

Volumes have been written on the theme of restoration in the image of God. For now, it would help us remember that we are talking about restoration to wholeness; returning to a state of being at one with God; working in harmony with God for the greater glory of God, and the material and spiritual wellbeing of the whole of creation. For two and a half years Jesus had been calling people back to this intensely close relationship with their Creator, in which their human will was surrendered to God and his divine plan.

If our Lord's detractors were so preoccupied with being seen to distance themselves from images of Caesar, he had every right to expect that they would wish to seek the closest resemblance to the image of God, especially when they were staring at it!

This is where Jesus met clear, deliberate, though masked opposition. In truth, these people were rejecting not only the image of God stamped on their hearts, but also the image of God he openly claimed to represent. They opposed it because they knew it meant they would lose control and authority to direct things, even the affairs of God, the way they wanted.

Verse 22: Finale

As Matthew records:

When they heard this, they were amazed. 
So they left him and went away.

They knew instantly that he had looked right into the depths of their minds and hearts and that he had read them absolutely correctly. "They were amazed." The sad moment for our Lord was that, having realised this, they did not stay and let him put things right. "So they left him and went away." The tragedy was not just that they went off to the Pharisees, to plan his destruction, but that they were completely unconcerned and unaware about the approach of their own.

Conclusion

There are similar parallels here as with the series of three parables which led up to this incident. When Christians are preoccupied with forcing the progress of their own plans, no matter how sincerely conceived, they are in fact displaying the same spiritual blindness as the leaders involved in this unsuccessful artifice. In the early centuries of the Church's battle for survival, its saints, prophets and teachers were very clear in their minds about the need for all to be fully restored in the image of God. It features often in their marvellous writings, and even more graphically in their sufferings and martyrdoms for the Lord.

Never in the history of the Church, has there been such widespread and varied distortion of the Gospel teaching of Jesus, as we see in our own times. Fundamentally it is caused by the same spiritual battle being fought within the souls of those who claim to be modern day followers of Jesus, as was seen in our Gospel text of paying tribute to Caesar.

Our Lord continues to challenge each of us to stay in his presence and let him heal (which means, make whole) the scars and restore God's image in us. Sadly we are often "hell-bent" on going our own way and determined, deep down, that it is he who will eventually conform to our will. We are quick to point out the ungodliness of the Pharisees for doing this, but turn "a blind eye" to our own tendency to practise a form of misguided "new age" religion, and essentially to do the same as they do.

This state of affairs is so advanced in its hold on many Christians, that the survival of the Church as we know it in the immediate future is now extremely precarious! For those who do listen and try to bear the fruit our Lord expects, it must be a matter of intense prayer and constant recommitment.

The good news is that there is much to hope for and if you are reading this or other Bible based meditational material there is the solace in knowing you are called to share our Lord's caring concern for his Church and for the whole world for which it is meant to be praying.

Let's help one another to be loyal to our Lord despite the overwhelming distractions around us which threaten our spiritual priorities and values.

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