Session #132 Return to Rightful Owner
Scripture Matthew 22:15-22
Summary Is Matthew 22:15-22 just about money and taxes? Or is there something more than meets the eye? Trust Jesus to turn a malicious trap into another teaching moment. It is an object lesson about ownership from the image and inscription on a Roman coin. A lesson for now. And also for what is to come at the end of the age.
Then the Pharisees went and plotted how they might entangle Him in His talk. And they sent to Him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men. Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, “Why do you test Me, you hypocrites? Show Me the tax money.” So they brought Him a denarius. And He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” And He said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left Him and went their way.
Is Matthew 22:15-22 just about money and taxes? Or is there something more than meets the eye? Trust Jesus to turn a malicious trap into another teaching moment. It is an object lesson about ownership from the image and inscription on a Roman coin. A lesson for now. And also for what is to come at the end of the age. Stay with me as the K-Drama – kingdom drama – continues.
From the moment Jesus enters Jerusalem in Matthew 21, everything is turned upside down literally. Cleansing the temple, Jesus overturns the tables. Cursing the fig tree, He sends a very strong signal that fruitlessness will be judged. Offended and threatened, the religious leaders confront Jesus by questioning and challenging His authority. Jesus stumps His opponents with a question of His own, followed by three parables that warn about the rejection of instruction, inspection and invitation.
Clearly, a main frontal attack is not getting anywhere and the leaders try to outflank Jesus next.
In this next section, three smaller units – the Pharisees, the Herodians, and the Sadducees – will launch their own separate attacks against Jesus. They will take turns to test Jesus with tough and tricky questions, in hope of tripping and trapping Him. The first question about taxes, which is in this teaching, is asked by the Pharisees (through their disciples) and the Herodians (Matthew 22:15-22). The second question about the Resurrection is asked by the Sadducees (Matthew 22:23-33). The third question is about the Law and asked by the Pharisees (Matthew 22:34-40) and the final question is asked by Jesus Himself (Matthew 22:41-46), a question that shut them up because no one was able to answer Him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare question Him anymore (Matthew 22:46). This ended the second round of attacks and Jesus had the upper hand in both rounds.
Now that we have the big picture, let us back up and consider the first question found in Matthew 22:15-22
The Unlikely Alliance of the Pharisees & the Herodians
The Pharisees are members of a Jewish party known for their tradition of strict piety and interpretation of the Mosaic law. In addition, they developed an extensive set of oral extensions of the law designed to maintain religious identity and purity.They were a religious group. Although they disapproved of gentile rule over God’s people, they were not known for their political activity.
But who are the Herodians? As the name suggests, they are a group of Jews loyal to Herod’s family who aligned with Rome. The Herodians’ political allegiance was indirectly therefore to Rome. They considered paying taxes as merely fulfilling their responsibilities as good subjects of Rome.
It was an unlikely alliance of the religious and the political. Jesus was that big a threat to them that they were willing to put aside their differences to work together, to remove Jesus. We know how dangerous it can be when both religious and political elements come together. The main objective of this alliance was a plot to trap and entangle Jesus (Matthew 22:15), to catch Jesus in His words (Mark 12:13), to seize on His words (Luke 20:20). But first, they needed to soften the target through flattery. They come to Jesus with the sort of complimentary words with which a speaker might seek an audience’s favour, but for the purpose of lowering his guard. Ancient moralists frequently condemn the danger of trusting or offering such “flattery.” Proverbs 29:5 gives the same warning: “A man who flatters his neighbour spreads a net for his feet.” And the word ‘flatter’ carries the meaning: to divide, to plunder; to be smooth, slippery. So they said in Matthew 22:16, “Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men.” Although this was totally true, they did not mean it at all. It was just a lead up to their tough trick question in the next verse: “Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”(Matthew 22:17).
For starters, let us be clear that this is not the temple tax mentioned in Matthew 17:24–27. This is the poll tax that went to support foreign, pagan oppressors. Let us unpack this to understand the significance of this question. Firstly, it is a legal question and we can paraphrase it as “According to the law of Moses, is it right to pay taxes to foreign powers? What do you think, O great teacher and rabbi, Jesus?”. It was also a political question. This tax was a form of tribute to Rome. To pay tax means to acknowledge and accept Rome’s authority and control over them, and to admit their subject status to Rome which many Jews were not willing to do (John 8:33, 2 Kings 17:1-6). As such, not to pay the tax would signal rebellion or revolution. Next, it is a restrictive question, allowing only two possible answers : ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and both are just as incriminating. For example, if you asked “Have you stopped abusing your children?”, either answer condemns you as a child abuser. So it is a dangerous question for if Jesus answered ‘yes’, He may lose His messianic support and following for openly supporting Rome and the Pharisees could accuse Jesus of not keeping the law, for not being righteous, thereby discrediting Him. If He answered ‘no’, He would be seen as challenging taxes and hence Rome and also as aligning with the views of the zealots that sparked a revolt in AD6, led by Judas of Galilee (Acts 5:37). The Herodians then could charge Him as a revolutionary like Judas of Galilee, and have Him arrested and promptly executed. This question was deliberately crafted to trap Jesus, to try to catch Jesus in His own ‘game’ because earlier, when the leaders questioned His authority, Jesus also provided only two options when He asked the leaders about John’s authority: “from heaven?” or “from men?” The big difference is that one of these answers is right. However, they refused to give the right answer because they did not believe it at all and since they were unwilling to say the wrong answer, for fear of the people, they opted to act blur: “We do not know.” In this case, Jesus could have also refused to engage, to side-step this trick question. But to do that would bring His authority into question again, which was their main objective. A non-answer was only slightly better than any of the options. This question was a set-up by the Pharisees and the Herodians. We have got Him now or so they thought.
What a Set-Up! But watch how Jesus Upsets His Set-Upper
In Matthew 22:18-21, Jesus said to them, ‘Why do you test Me …?” The Greek word for the word ‘test’ is ‘peirazo’. When used with bad intent, it is to test with the objective of finding fault, to discredit, to disqualify, to “tempt” with the hope of a person biting on the bait, and failing.
Why do you test Me … you hypocrites? Interesting. Why was it not “You evil, wicked, sneaky people?” since “Jesus perceived their wickedness”?; but “You hypocrites”? We will get to that in a while.
For now, let us have a look at the tax money. Jesus asked them to show Him the tax money.The poll tax was probably one denarius a year for each person, equivalent to a day’s wage. If we look at Singapore, it would work out to be about $154 per day (estimating from the median monthly salary). This tax money would be the silver denarius of Emperor Tiberius which was minted in Lyon and in circulation during that period. Only the imperial mint could legally produce silver and gold coins. Locally minted copper coins omitted the emperor’s image due to Jerusalem’s sensitivities. So one side of this silver denarius minted in the imperial mint would bear Caesar’s image and also included an inscription (epigraphe): “TI. CAESAR DIVI AVG.F.AVGVSTVS” meaning ‘Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus’. Simply, it is saying ‘Caesar is divine , he is god.’ The other side bore an image of the Goddess Roma with the inscription: “PONTIF. MAXIM” meaning ‘high priest’. The coin related directly to pagan Roman religion and to the imperial cult in the east. This provides a better understanding of why the Jews were so against the coin and hence Jews would have considered both the name and picture as blasphemous. The image violated the second commandment against idolatry since the inscription shows that the emperor considered himself divine, as god. These coins openly promoted the worship of Caesar. While Jews were allowed to honour emperors, they were expected to avoid images and worship as only God is to be worshipped, not Caesar.
Religion and worship aside, the coins were the property of Caesar. Since the emperor controlled the production of the coins, they were officially his property. His own image denoted imperial ownership. Caesar was the rightful owner of these coins. Yet like it or not, the Jews had to use this coin. It was the one required for the poll tax in all provinces. That was what had provoked Judas the Galilean’s famous revolt of AD6.
Pay Back Time: Return to the Rightful Owner
With their reply about Caesar’s image and inscription, Jesus then said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” In trying to trap Jesus, they fell for His ‘trap’ for them.
When Jesus asked for a coin, they were able to provide one on demand. Since they were using Caesar’s money, they were therefore also subject to his policies and taxes. They asked if it is lawful to “pay” taxes. The word used is ‘didomi or pay/give’
Jesus cleverly said “render” to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. That word is ‘apodidomi or pay back/give back’. The Jews were not giving to Caesar, but were paying back or giving back what rightly belongs to Caesar. They were settling a debt owed to Caesar. They were simply returning the coins to the rightful owner
For the Jews, it was the issue of loyalty to God that was the basis for Jews (and Zealots) to object to Roman taxation. But Jesus, through this one statement shows that one can still honour the authorities and government without compromising the worship of God and loyalty to God. What belongs to Caesar, give back to Caesar. Similarly, what belongs to God, give back to God. Does this promote a ‘sacred’ vs ‘secular’ dichotomy and mentality? Not at all as R.T. Francis puts it this way: “This is not a rigid division of life into the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’, but rather a recognition that the ‘secular’ finds its proper place within the overriding claim of the ‘sacred’.” It is not Caesar and God; but Caesar under God. After all, all authority has been appointed by God and belongs to God. Caesar only has power when God allows him to have power. Whichever empire or ruler, everything still belongs to God. We are to recognise and honour the authorities set in place by God. This position is affirmed in the New Testament (Romans 13:1; 1 Peter 2:13-17; 1 Timothy 2:1-2; Titus 3:1-2). Should there be a conflict (which is not the issue in this case), then we clearly ought to obey God, rather than men (Acts 5:29).
We are In the world but not of the world. Be careful that we do not appear so spiritual that we consider everything as evil and cannot touch it. If that is the case, then do not use anything that is in the world’s system at all, which is impossible. The key is to know how to discern what it means to be in the world and not of the world. We are to worship God fully without compromise as we function in this life, yet remain holy and set apart from the systems of the world. Biblical examples in the Old Testament are Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon.
In one concise and profound statement, Jesus avoids the trap by affirming both what the Pharisees and what the Herodians hold dear. God’s sovereignty must be acknowledged, but human governments also have a legitimate authority. Neither the image nor the inscription on coins could prevent the Jews’ devotion to God. Nor should the coin have such an effect, or did it?
Jesus’ opponents appeared religious, spiritual and pious, in the name of loyalty to God, not wanting to compromise their worship of God. However, they were using the very same coin they objected to; thereby revealing their hypocrisy in the matter. More than just justifying the legitimacy of paying tax, Jesus challenged his opponents if they even needed to hold onto the coins at all. Why not return them all to Caesar, the rightful owner? Here is an interesting point: Jews in Jerusalem preferred death rather than allow Caesar’s image to enter Jerusalem on banners. Yet they were very willing to carry his image on coins. Hypocrites! Why? Because it is money and money is important; so an exception can be made (God understands?). For the sake of being practical, they were willing to compromise. But when it comes to paying taxes, they took issue with it. Double standards, no? Hypocrites! Lovers of God? Not exactly. Luke 16:14 tells us that the Pharisees were “lovers of money”. Hypocrites! Furthermore, since everything belongs to God, they should also be ready and willing to surrender all they had, including money, to God. After all, those who worship and trust God should have no attraction or attachment to money. Because no one can serve two masters. It is either God or mammon (Matthew 6:24). No wonder Jesus called them hypocrites. They tried to trap Jesus with religious talk but ended up being exposed for their own hypocrisy. They appeared spiritual and faithful, but were in fact not obedient nor faithful to God. Were they against Roman rule? Later, at Jesus’ trial, they readily declared that they have no king but Caesar (John 19:14-15). Remember the context of this passage: It is all about outward appearances, disobedience and fruitlessness in this section. Hypocrites!
We must not readily label them as hypocrites as we too must be careful. We readily acknowledge the dangers of the love of money and warn against worshipping mammon. Yet, we have no problem accumulating and holding on to riches and wealth, conveniently considering it as God’s blessings. We can just as quickly align with the religious and the political for the sake of the financial. If we are not careful, we too can be hypocrites.
Return to Rightful Owner: God
Having addressed what belongs to Caesar, we must not miss addressing what belongs to God. Looking at each of our hearts, we have to answer the same question that Jesus asked: “Whose image and inscription is this?”
Caesar’s image was on the coin. God’s image is on man (Genesis 1:26-27). Created in His image, every man and woman belong to God. God is the rightful owner. However, sin has marred God’s image in man. We owe God a debt, one we cannot pay back, give back, render to God what is rightly His. For this reason, God sent His Son, Jesus, to die on behalf of our sins, to pay the price of the penalty with His life, His blood (1 Peter 1:18-19), to cleanse, to redeem and to buy back what was originally His. As believers of Jesus Christ, we are paid for by His blood, we are no longer our own. We belong to God again (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, 1 Corinthians 7:23).
We carry God’s image and we also have His Inscription upon us. For all of us who believe in Jesus Christ, we bear the name of Christ. We also have His laws written upon our minds and hearts (2 Corinthians 3:3, Hebrews 8:10). As such, we must render and return to God what is rightly His. This is not the time to live compromised lives. Do not pretend to be religious and spiritual but not faithful and obedient. Do not be hypocrites. Do not live double lives. We belong to Jesus. Turn and return and live our lives fully devoted to Jesus and His kingdom. The time is coming where the religious, the political and the financial will align – one world religion, one world government and one world economy. The image of the beast will be worshipped. The mark (inscription) of the beast that will be forced on people, to be taken. Without the image and mark, no one can buy or sell. It is an antichrist alliance that will come against the Christ and His people. Come that time, either you belong to Jesus or you belong to Satan. Your political alignment, church membership and bank account will not save you. Only faith in Jesus Christ, uncompromising worship of Jesus Christ and faithful obedience to Jesus Christ will matter. This is the time to turn and return and live our lives fully devoted to Jesus and His kingdom.
In conclusion, let us consider Matthew 22:22: “when they had heard these words, they marvelled and left Him and went their way.” Was it just a clever answer to escape a trap? More than that, Jesus displayed and demonstrated His authority. Jesus could have used Scripture to support His answer (and there are plenty) yet He did not; at least not in this case. This is because as Jesus was the One who gave Scripture, He was the authority above Scripture. He was the Only One who could interpret and present it rightly. No wonder His opponents marvelled. However, they left Him and went their way.
Do not just be wowed by good teaching or wise answers. A-ha moments are nice. But do not just be impressed by Jesus only to leave Him and go your own way. We who declare that we are believers of Jesus Christ, we belong to God, to Jesus. Again, the time is now to turn and return to the rightful owner, to the One who paid the price that secured salvation and freedom for us.
For now, it is right to honour and obey the authorities that God has set over us. Yet, more than just the paying of taxes, it is the wholehearted worship of Jesus that matters.
The day will come when we are expected to take a stand for Jesus against a religious-political-financial power. May it be clearly seen that we who bear the image of God and of Christ, will live guided by what has been inscribed upon the tablets of our hearts by the Holy Spirit. To be obedient, even to death, marked and sealed by the Lord for “The Lord knows those who are His.” (2 Timothy 2:19).
Start now. Return to the Rightful Owner.