Continuing our journey through the events of Holy Week in Matthew’s Gospel, we find ourselves this week in on the plot of the Pharisees and the Herodians. Remember, Jesus has taught in three parables, condemning the Pharisees and all the religious elite of the day for their efforts at self-aggrandizement and their unwillingness to follow God. So, during these confrontations, the Pharisees apparently leave to plot against Jesus. Remember, too, the tensions created by the Palm Sunday entrance of Jesus. The people praised Him upon His entry and seem ready at a moment’s notice to make Him king. The political establishment knows far too well what happens if Jesus plays out this string. Rome will send in its armies. Many heads will roll. What power and influence they enjoy will be destroyed. Amazingly, these two groups seem to have hated each other through history, but, in recognition of the threat posed by this carpenter turned rabbi from Nazareth, both unite to trick Him into either committing treason against the emperor or upsetting the populace, His base of support.
Of course, the Pharisees are not stupid. They know that the game they are playing is dangerous. They know that if Jesus takes offense at them, their power is precarious. Jesus has healed all who have come to Him this week. His powers are renowned throughout a large portion of Israel. All He has to do is give the word, and they could be tossed out or worse. So they send in their students. It is a crafty ploy. If Jesus takes offense, they can apologize for the unbridled enthusiasm of their youth. They can promise to better instruct their students and end the threat against themselves. If, on the other hand, Jesus gives them one of their hoped-for answers, they can remove Him as a threat. It is a diabolical plan.
So, the two groups come to Jesus and ask Him whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. Bubbling behind this question is a long forgotten controversy. Although you and I might not be able to relate with respect to the question, it was very important at the time when Jesus walked the earth. Believe it or not, people fought about taxes, a lot. Some groups argued that taxes were too high or should never be paid because to pay them was an affront to God. Similarly, some groups argued that the people enjoyed the benefits of the Empire and that taxes were necessary for all to enjoy the basics such as good roads, good bath houses, strong defense, and the like. It was a hotly disputed question, very much different from our own – yes, that’s right, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Although, all kidding aside, some researches claim that nearly half of all income in Israel at this time went to pay taxes. Think of that for a second. Half of your money going to taxes—can you imagine how mad you would be?
The hope behind the question is that Jesus will be forced to answer one of two ways. If He says that they should not pay taxes, the Pharisees can go to the Roman authorities and claim that Jesus is committing treason be encouraging people not to pay taxes. If, on the other hand, Jesus says to pay the tax, the people will begin to turn on Him. Imagine yourself of average means. Half of your money goes to pay your taxes to Caesar, to the Temple, and to the local authority. And did I mention that extortion was rampant? How would you feel about taxes? Their hope is that if Jesus says the tax is legal, whatever goodwill He has generated will begin to dissipate as fog on the morning sun.
And just so we understand how crafty the question, look at how they introduce the question. They call Him rabbi, a sign of respect. The talk about His lack of partiality and His unwavering commitment to teach the truth. Talk about buttering Him up!
Yet, Jesus sees through their plot and their deception. He brazenly accuses them of doing what they really are doing. But, rather than yelling at them, He takes control of the conversation. He asks them to show Him a coin. Someone obliges Him. If you have ever seen coins from this point in history, you know what they show Him. On one side of the coin would be the profile of Caesar. On the opposite side of the coin would be the goddess, Pax (peace), and the words “High Priest.” Around the edge of the coin, at this time, would be the words, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.” Naturally, the conspirators answer, “Caesar’s.” And Jesus gives the wonderful answer that we should give to Caesar those things that belong to Caesar and the things to God that belong to God. It is a remarkable answer, one totally unexpected in the minds of the conspirators.
Jesus’ answer testifies to the fact that He is not a threat to the current political order. Yes, the Kingdom He is advancing is revolutionary. His kingdom will, however, be forced to operate within the current world, including the various political and economic orders, until His return in glory. Better still, the citizens of His kingdom, will have obligations to the authorities in charge in this world. Paul and Peter will both remind Christians that we have these obligations and that we are to submit to them, even as we understand that such obligations will one day fade into non-existence. Finally, while Caesar is concerned with and owed trivial things such as denarius, God is more concerned, and owed, everything. Just as Caesar’s image is imprinted upon the coins, God’s image is imprinted upon us. Subtly, Jesus’ answer harkens back to Genesis. The Pharisees-in-training certainly understand this. If we are “minted” in His image, then we owe Him everything. Even more profound, knowing that He has given us stewardship over the things that He has given us, we are required to offer up the entirety of our lives and our goods to God. No doubt this answer, when given in testimony to Pilate in a couple days hence, will help Pilate to understand that the charges about Jesus being an insurrectionist are untrue.
Though the answer is simple, its application seems anything but. How often do we hear of “Christians” cheating on their taxes? How often do we, as Christians, fail to give everything in joyful service to God? How often do we forget that it was in His image that we were created? How often do we carve out areas in our lives which we think are sacred or more important to God and then spend time and effort and energy trying to fix for ourselves the things we think are beneath His notice? We might trust Him with our eternal souls, but do we trust Him with everything we are and everything we have? Brothers and sisters, one of the amazing truths of the Gospel is the way in which you, and I, and everyone whom we meet was wondrously and gloriously made! Jesus remarks about the fact that God knows every hair on our head, He knows us so well. Yet we partition off part of our lives as “belonging to us” when, in reality, it should all belong to God. Jesus’ words ought to cause us multiple times each day to examine our loyalties and to prioritize them, not as seems good or best to us, but as He has already revealed to us. Our value to Him is incalculable—He has demonstrated that on the cross. His power to redeem all in our lives is sure – He has demonstrated that through His victory over death with the empty tomb. What will you give Him this day? That which He asks, or only that which you are willing to give up?