Matthew 22:15-22 (NIV)
Paying the Imperial Tax to Caesar
15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”
18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
I want to make sure that your brains are working this morning, so I will begin with a riddle. A blue house is made of blue bricks. A yellow house is made of yellow bricks. A red house is made of red bricks. An orange house is made of orange bricks. What would a green house be made of? Glass!
Okay, what about this one. What am I? I have holes in my top and in my bottom. I have holes on my left side and my right side. I even have holes through my middle, yet I still hold water. What am I? A sponge!
These kinds of questions make us think. They keep our minds active and hopefully developing. But sometimes we become so familiar with the answer that we forget how we even got there. Sometimes information is passed on to us from one generation to the next, and we just assume it to be true. Maybe we read something in a book or a magazine and we just take it at face value. But I think that as followers of Jesus Christ we can’t always just rely on the easy answers. Difficult questions require difficult answers.
If you come to me with a difficult question don’t expect me to simply give a yes or no answer and leave it at that. Jesus rarely gave simple answers to complicated questions. Instead he often told parables or made metaphors to help those who were asking him questions to find the answers that they were seeking.
Our scripture for today is one of those occurrences. This is an account of a difficult question and perhaps an even more difficult answer. The Pharisees, whom we find time and time again throughout the New Testament, don’t tend to like Jesus. The Pharisees are the keepers of the law. They are the moral police. They seem to believe that the reason that they have lost the favor of God in the 1st century is because the people are not keeping the Law. If only the people would repent and turn back to the Law, God would bless them again.
The foremost blessing that they were looking to receive was to come in the form of freedom from the Romans who had gained control over Israel, over the Promised Land. The Pharisees wanted people to adhere to the Law so that God would bless them by ridding their country of the Romans. That’s why they didn’t like Jesus.
Jesus ate with the tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. He told them that God loved them just the way that they are. So why would they change if God loved them just the way that they are? The Pharisees saw Jesus as an obstacle to them achieving their goals.
Our text also mentions the Herodians. Today’s passage and its parallel are the only references to the Herodians in all of the Bible. The Herodians are not mentioned throughout the Bible, Church history, or secular history. So all we have to go on is their name. The Herodians would appear to be people who were supporters of King Herod.
King Herod is what we often call a Puppet King. He looked like he was calling the shots, making the decisions, and leading the country, but in reality the Roman Empire was doing just that. Herod was in place because he was loyal to the Roman Empire and he was Jewish.
Those who were loyal to Rome didn’t really like Jesus that much either. He was always talking about another kingdom, the kingdom of God. When he was born he was pronounced the king of the Jews and many people thought that he was going to become the rightful leader of Israel. So those who associated themselves with King Herod didn’t like Jesus.
So the Pharisees and the Herodians would not have chosen to hang out together after work on a Friday evening. They had vastly differing views on politics and religion. I began writing this sermon the day after the Republican debate in New Hampshire and it made me think that perhaps the differences between the GOP candidates would be a good example of the differences between the Pharisees and the Herodians. But that still doesn’t begin to get at the differences between these two groups. If you took the conservative-est Conservative and the liberal-est Liberal and put them in the same room, then you would have what we find in today’s text.
Matthew tells us that the Pharisees send out their understudies to unite with the Herodians. Now what in the world would cause these two vastly different groups to work together? The had a common enemy and they had a common cause: to try to trap Jesus in his words. They want to discredit him so that this movement among the people that he began will fizzle out and go away. Like they say, nothing unites like a common enemy. I might hate you and you might hate me, but if we hate Jesus more, then we can be friends, hating Jesus together!
So the Pharisees-in-training and the Herodians find Jesus and they butter him up a bit before they ask him this question, found in verse 17, “Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”
If Jesus says that they should not pay the imperial tax to Caesar, the Herodians will go to the Roman leaders and tell them that there is this guy who is starting an uprising against Rome by telling the people to not pay their taxes. This would result in Jesus being thrown in jail or executed. Either way, the Herodians would have taken care of this little problem that they had. But Jesus also knew that he couldn’t say “yes” because he didn’t want to be seen as being on the side of the Romans. The imperial tax was a tax that only non-Roman citizens had to pay. It was kind of like a fee that was being charged to the Jewish people just to have the luxury of being occupied by the Roman army. This would be like going to a restaurant, ordering a hamburger, but getting a fish sandwich, and having to pay for both. But I don’t even like fish!
So if Jesus simply said Yes, you need to pay the imperial tax, then the large majority of the Jewish people would turn on him, discredit him as a teacher and leader, and stop paying him any attention. If he says no, then he will be thrown into jail and possible executed.
I have heard that this question is a lot like asking someone “Have you quit beating your wife yet?” when you know that they have never raised their hand to anyone. It is an incriminating question. If you answer yes, you are saying that you did at one time hit your wife. If you say no, then it sounds like you are still beating her on a regular basis. Neither answer seems to be a good one.
But Jesus, always thinking on his feet, replies with a witty response. He asks for a coin and asks whose image and inscription is on it. Like our money today, there was a picture of a national leader on the money. Our money has dead presidents on it and theirs had their current leader, Caesar’s picture on it. And Jesus says, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
I believe that this is a brilliant answer because Jesus doesn’t just give them a simple yes or no. He gives them something to go back and think about. On one hand he seems to be affirming the payment of the tax, but on the other, he is affirming the giving to God what is God’s. Either way, neither party could find fault in his answer.
Both the Pharisees and the Herodians would have been Jews. They would have heard from an early age the stories found in the Torah, the books of Moses. They knew the creation narrative where God created all of the world and then created his greatest achievement, human beings. We find the story in Genesis 1:26-27, “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
So to a Jew, when they heard Jesus ask whose image was on the coin, and they replied “Caesar” they would have also been thinking “image of God”. Caesar was created in the image of God and still bears some of God’s likeness. So while the coin bears the image of Caesar, it also bears the image of God. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s takes on a different meaning when you realize that this little coin also bears the image of God.
We also need to keep in mind that the Jews would have known very well that they are nothing but keepers of money, land, and all other things. When God gave “dominion” to human beings over the earth and the water and all of the animals, God never gives up his ownership of these things. To have dominion over something means that you are in charge of something, but not necessarily that it is yours.
My 21-month-old son is nearing that age that we often refer to as the “terrible twos.” And I joke sometimes by saying that he is quite precocious, because he seems to have entered into those terrible twos a little early.
When a child enters the second year of life, they have a relatively limited vocabulary, but there are a few words that they know very well and use quite frequently. The first one is “no”, which they will use anytime a response is required of them. The other is “mine”. We had a few of our neighbors over a couple weeks ago and there were a number of other little boys of similar age to Paxton. And these little boys were running amuck in our home, getting in to everything, turning the house upside-down. And all of this was a little unsettling for my little boy, but he handled it well. That is, until they started to get into his toys.
Paxton did really well when the other boys started playing with his toys, but there was more than one occasion when one little boy was playing with Paxton’s toys and Paxton went up to him and grabbed the toy and took it away from him. Paxton hasn’t learned the word “mine” yet, but he was saying it with his actions.
Now this is a little embarrassing to a dad who wants everyone to believe that his child is the one and only perfect child in the world. So when my child took the toy away from another child, I looked at him with disapproval and said with my eyes, “You think that toy is yours? I don’t remember you paying for that. When did you get a job? When did you sacrifice time and energy to be able to purchase that toy?” That’s right, my eyes can say a lot.
Paxton may have dominion over the toys in our house, but if we are really honest, we all know who those toys really belong to. Those are daddy’s toys.
Psalm 24:1 says this, “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” Everything and everyone that is on the earth, and I would add in outer space, belongs to God. So even though I might claim to own the toys in my house, or even my house, or even the mortgage on my house, I realize that everything that I have is not mine. It belongs to God. Even if I have worked my fingers to the bone, burnt the midnight oil, and my candle from both ends, everything I have is God’s. Deuteronomy 8:17-18, “You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.”
Are you picking up what I am putting down? It isn’t yours. Even the money that had Caesar’s image on it wasn’t his. Since Caesar was created in the image of God, the money is God’s too. We are called to care for these things that we have been put in charge of and we call that stewardship.
So when Jesus says to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, the Herodians couldn’t go back and complain to Herod or the Romans that Jesus was saying that people should give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and expect them to be upset with him. If anything, it would probably bolster their support of him. And the young Pharisees couldn’t go back to the more established Pharisees and tell them that Jesus was saying that we need to be giving to God what is God’s because that is what they would say too. Jesus gives the perfect answer.
But I think that the most important thing about what Jesus said isn’t what he said at all. It is what he didn’t say. He didn’t come right out and tell them what they should do, even though he had all authority to do so. The Bible teaches us a lot of things about God and what God wants us to do with our lives, but it doesn’t tell us everything we want to know.
For instance, I greatly respect those who withhold taxes when they believe that the money is being used in ways that stand in contradiction to the teachings of Jesus. I think of those who withhold war taxes because they believe that killing is wrong. And you can legally do this. The US government publishes numbers that tell us what percent of our taxes go toward military spending and people can withhold that percentage of their taxes and instead give it toward a charity of their choice. But Jesus never says that we shouldn’t pay war taxes or any other taxes for that matter. Surely the taxes that the Israelites were paying were used to fund the Roman Army, but Jesus is silent on this matter.
I also greatly respect those who choose instead to try to change the way our government handles conflict by voting for specific candidates that promise to work to bring peace to the world. But again, Jesus is silent on this matter.
Jesus calls us to be peacemakers, but he doesn’t really tell us how. He tells us to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what it God’s, but he doesn’t really spell that out for us either. And I think that is intentional. Jesus and the Bible tell us the things that we need to know to make informed decisions, but this requires that we do some thinking for ourselves.
It is like the riddles that I began today’s message with. Riddles, puzzles, and things of this nature challenge our thinking and that is what will keep our minds sharp. Studies show that doing these kinds of activities can actually slow the onset and development of mental disorders like Alzheimer’s. These puzzles train your brain to think. And I believe that Jesus does the same thing. He trains us to think for ourselves; he trains us to think for the Kingdom of God.
The old saying goes, “Give a man a fish, and you will feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you will feed him for a lifetime.” I like to alter that and say, “Tell a man what to think and he knows how to live for a day. Teach him how to think and he knows how to live for a lifetime.” Jesus could have told us what to do, but he chooses to answer difficult questions with stories and parables and perhaps the occasional riddle. Jesus teaches us how to think, preparing us to live as a part of the Kingdom of God.