As we read tonight let us remember that Matthew is now pointing us, driving the narrative towards the cross.
Let us read…
Matthew 22:15-22 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
Tribute to Caesar
15 Then the Pharisees went and [a]plotted together how they might trap Him [b]in what He said. 16 And they *sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and [c]defer to no one; for You are not partial to any. 17 Tell us then, what do You think? Is it [d]lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus perceived their [e]malice, and said, “Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites? 19 Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax.” And they brought Him a [f]denarius. 20 And He *said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They *said to Him, “Caesar’s.” Then He *said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 And hearing this, they were amazed, and leaving Him, they went away.
So, I saw a video the other day, it was of a little boy paying monopoly, and the camera scans around to him and he is crying, so the father of this boy asks, what’s wrong? To which the boy weepily replies, “I had to pay taxes.” And then proceeds to burst into tears. The father replies, but that is part of the game. Now sobbing, the boy responds, “But it’s the worst part of the game!”
Now we all can relate because… well… taxes.
Jesus is forced into this debate on whether we should pay taxes or not. And his response has been used to justify any number of politically motivated ideologies. So, to get into what Jesus is saying tonight we will have to go into what is happening in Jesus’ day and build the picture of the tension that Jesus is brought into. We will see by the end of tonight that the demand that Jesus places on us is far more than just civil obedience or disobedience it is spiritual fruitfulness.
So let’s dive in and see…
1. The Test
Matthew lets us know what is going on here, by saying that the Pharisees went out to trap Jesus by his words. In other words, this was all a well-made plan to get Jesus to say something that they could use to destroy him.
So, they went along with the Herodians to trap him with one of the most contentious issues of Jesus’ day. Now, to understand the issue we need to understand 3 things, The occupation of Israel by Rome, The Herodians, and the tax that is mentioned here.
So, we must understand that since 63 BC Rome had been an occupying force in Israel. (so for about 80-90 years). This colonising force had come in and killed many people, abused others, and had completely overhauled Jewish society. Added to this they were pagans, and had subtly introduced increased Idolatry and pagan rituals to the people of Israel. To the Jews this was an evil colonial people.
Now, they had not only occupied these people, but every conquered people of Rome had to give tribute, or tax to Rome. Which meant an ever increasing eroding of your personal income to fund and pay for these evil, idolatrous and occupying people.
To add insult to injury the method of collecting that tax was, purposely rife with corruption. So, it was not benefiting you it was siphoned off to corrupt people who were made stupidly rich off your work.
So effectively, we have a corrupt and inefficient government making criminals rich off the peoples hard earned money.
Now, in this time there had started a theological debate if it was right to even pay taxes because it was going to a Idolatrous, evil empire. You had on one side of the debate the religious elite of the day (the Pharisees) who were on the side of the people who were trying to get people to peacefully and non-peacefully reject the tax and resist Rome’s culture and practices. On the other side we have the Herodians, who were a group of Jews who saw Rome as a good force, because for all its corruption, Rome had “modernised” Israel and brought culture and new ideas. They were far more moderate and suggested that paying tax was okay. In fact, they were very much in league with Rome and her ideas.
This is the very reason that the Pharisees brought the Herodians along. The trap is, if Jesus says, pay the tax the people would hate him and probably rise up against Jesus, as this was a wholly unpopular idea. However, if Jesus said reject the tax, the Herodians, with their allegiance to Rome would have reported Jesus and Rome would come in and Kill Jesus as a traitor of the Empire.
So, Jesus is placed in an impossible situation.
Added to all this, the type of tax that is mentioned in this passage had particular problems for Jesus and the people, so let us look at;
2. The Tax
Now, many English translations of this passage simply say taxes, and this is the reason I chose to read from the NASB tonight, because it gives a more accurate translation of the word used here. You see, the word in the Greek here for taxes is “kēnsos” – this was a head (census) tax - this was an annual tax and was used specifically to finance the Roman army.
It had to be paid with a minted coin that Rome distributed with Caesar’s head on it and the inscription “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus”. Its value was about a days labour.
Therefore, this tax had a heavy financial cost to people who were basically substance earners, the lived from hand to mouth. But it had a moral cost, by paying it they were using something that literally had on it a blasphemous and idolatrous statement.
This tax was used to fund the army, the very people who were going around and abusing your people. Being occupied by an army is not a fun thing. Armies historically always abuse their authority. So you would have these armed people who would walk around and randomly abuse you by taking your stuff and your dignity at their whim.
To the Jews of Jesus day this tax was a spiritual and financial burden and it was funding their occupation and abuse.
This is the quagmire that Jesus is thrown into. There simply is no answer that would not get him killed, well no answer except the one He gives. And the Answer He gives is a powerful one!
a. ) The True Tribute
Jesus says, you hypocrites. He comes out guns blazing, exposing the Pharisees evil and self-delusion in their question. They, like most politician, took an emotive and divisive talking-point to entrap their enemy. They did not care what Jesus’ answer was. In fact they didn’t actually care about the answer at all. They wanted to use this for their own gain.
Jesus answers, Show me the coin, who is on it? Obviously Caesar is on it. to which he says, well give to Caesar what is Caesar’s however, also give to God what is God’s!
This is such a powerful statement when you start to look at. You see Jesus is not advocating for a completely passive response to oppression. A just “suck it up and bare” it response to injustice. But He is also not advocating the revolutionary response that the Pharisees of his day wanted and many of us push for in our own world.
Jesus, in saying what he says, is continuing the tradition of scripture, which is; we as Christians/believers are to work for the good of all people, even our enemies and there is only one true authority on this earth and that is God.
What do I mean by this? Well we will answer this by looking at two things, firstly submitting to authority and secondly the working for the good of all people, even our enemies.
b.) True authority
The Bible in many places affirms the idea that all rulership all authority comes from one place; God.
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.
So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” 11 Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.
The whole book of Habakkuk is about God giving authority to the evil Babylonian Empire to rule over the earth and bring God’s judgment against Israel. Daniel brings about this reality. It is all over Scripture because Scripture declares that God is the only true King over creation.This is what monotheism demands.
The problem with this idea is, well not many rulers are good. So what do we do when an authority makes us, commands us to do evil?
Well that leads to do…
Jesus says render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but also render to God what is God’s! In other words, yes Caesar is your ruler, but know that even Caesar (the current ruler of the largest empire in the world) is under a greater authority. It is God who is over Caesar, and we are all under God.
This means that every leader will have to give a detailed account to God, their King for what they did with the power he gave them, and we should tremble at that because we too will give an account to God how we lived with what he gave us.
This is why again throughout Scripture we see the demand that when rulers overstep their authority the people of God loving and peacefully say, I am under a greater authority and so I have to obey God not men.
We see this most clearly in the book of Acts in 5:9 where Peter and the disciples are brought before the rulers and the rulers demand that they stop preaching the gospel to which
“Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings!””
This means church, that our obedience is always to God first! Always! This is easy for the things we like, but what about things in our society that are almost universally accepted but God says no to? Are we willing to endure temporary punishment to obey God?
This is why, following Jesus will always put you at odds with the Religious and Political establishment of this world. Both think this world is essentially theirs, so to both the message of Jesus is an existential threat.
To Religion. God exists for man. Think about it. all religion of the world has the idea that we must do good in order to get God on our side. Do good, earn salvation and God will bless you. In this idea (although essentially morally driven) the goal is the blessing and they are achieved through human effort.
To politics. Man exists for the state, we use man and power to ensure that the state continues. Essentially the world exists for man – generally the man at the top.
Jesus says no! Everything exists for God! Which means it’s not about getting God on our side, or holding onto power. It is ensuring that we are on His side! The question is how do we get on God’s side? Well, we give to God what is God’s. Essentially we owe God everything!
Whether word or deed, everything is done for God! EVERYTHING! It is that realisation that shocks everyone, it is that realisation that caused everyone to be amazed and leave. Because who lives for God in everything? Who can possibly live up to that standard? The politicians certainly don’t, that is obvious, but neither do the religious!
Now remember, Matthew is starting to point us to the cross. And here is the answer on how we can even hope to live this way. God knew that no-one lives lives that do everything for Him. But Christ came to seek those who couldn’t live up to the standard. Who couldn’t make the cut. Sinners like us.
The beauty of the gospel is that God came to seek me at my worst! I did nothing and can do nothing for Him. And when I realise that He did it all. That He loved me with a love that drove Him to the cross while I was at my worst my only response is offer my life back in response.
I will do nothing for God, until I see with broken clarity that I can do nothing for God.Like the politicians and religious Pharisees I will be running my own agenda, and trying to manipulate God into that. But when I see that He came to seek me, while I could do nothing for Him, I will see what is the point of playing games? All I can do is give my life as a living sacrifice in response to that, that is my only reasonable act of worship I have left.
So church, whether in word or deed, because of the cross, do everything unto God. In light of such mercy how can we do less?