This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on October 22, 2017.
This passage marks the beginning of a series of litmus tests meant not to test Jesus’ alkalinity or acidity but his legitimacy as a leader, or lack thereof. The question about paying taxes to Rome is the first of three such litmus testing questions. The second is the Sadducees’ question about the resurrection (they didn’t even believe in the resurrection), and the third is the Pharisees question about the greatest commandment, which he answers masterfully and then follows with a fourth question of his own. We’ll get to that next week. For now, it’s important to read this as the beginning of a series of Matthean moments where we’re meant to see what Jesus is made of when confronted by and compared to the respected Jewish authorities who would later be responsible for his arrest and trial.
Jesus’ inquisitors indicate Jesus’ essence before even giving him a chance to answer the first question. “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. (vs. 16) The disciples of the Pharisees (not the Pharisees – they first sent students to do their dirty work) do not believe Jesus is actually a person of integrity. This questioning is actually meant to reveal that and discredit him. Ironically, however, these inquisitors have both revealed their intent and set us up to observe the true integrity on display. What happens when someone confronts a person of the highest integrity with malicious intent? In this case, the person of integrity confronts them right back.
18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to entrap me? (vs. 18) There is much opportunity for reflection here. Namely, how is the differentiation revealed in Jesus through this act of confrontation an expression of his supreme emotional health? Various expressions of morality often come to mind when offering examples of integrity. Integrity is not less than this, though here Jesus shows it to be more as he stands steadily in this moment as exactly who they describe him to be: a person of truth who will not be swayed from it by anyone, privately or publicly. Jesus doesn’t just stand firm in truth, he openly reveals their evil intent. He does this first by naming their malice and then by revealing their duplicity.
The mastery of Jesus is on display here as he answers their question before answering it. For Jewish people, paying imperial taxes was a symbol of their oppression. Jewish revolutionaries, like the ones following Jesus, would have thought it wrong to pay taxes or even to possess the coin used to do so. To do this acknowledged the high authority of the one imaged on the coin and, in some ways, made one complicit in the system of Roman oppression. At the same time, Jesus would have known of a leader in his own lifetime who led a revolt against taxation. The Romans responded with numerous crucifixions to crush the revolt and make it clear that paying taxes was not optional. The question was a double bind. If Jesus affirmed paying taxes outright his followers might assume the Pharisees (who felt paying taxes to Rome wasn’t in line with their law) were more committed to Torah than he, but if he spoke against paying the tribute the Herodians his inquisitors brought along would likely report him to the authorities who would have him crucified for treason. His next move is brilliant.
When Jesus asked for a coin two things were quickly revealed. First, Jesus didn’t have the coin used to pay taxes on his person. No matter how he answered, it seemed that practically speaking, he was not participating in this system. Second, someone close to him, possibly the disciples of the Pharisees, was able to quickly produce the coin. If it was one of his inquisitors, then it became quickly clear who was complicit in this form of oppression and who was not. The likelihood that his answer to this question would create any imminent risk was greatly reduced as their duplicity was revealed. His lesson on integrity continues now with one simple, yet profound observation.
“Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” (vs. 20) In Jesus’ day, the image would have been that of Tiberius Caesar, with the inscription on one side reading “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.” This fact alone bumps up against the Jewish commitment to have no other gods and no graven images. (Exodus 20:3-4) The other side of the coin would read “pontifex maximus,” indicating that Caesar was the high priest, the person with the highest religious authority in the land. It’s worth noting, of course, that Jesus does not teach against paying government taxes, though the real implication of Jesus’ answer is perhaps much more personally penetrating. Jesus’ use of the term “image” recalls its use in Genesis 1:27.
Caesar’s image is on the coin, so give Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s. What is God’s? Caesar’s image is on the coin, but God’s image is on you. So give to God what is God’s. All of it. That is, after all, what a person of integrity would do, right? Thus ends the lesson.
Dr. Jason Edwards
Second Baptist Church, Liberty, MO
Tags: Pharisees, Taxes, Image of God, Integrity, Confrontation