Matthew 22:15-22, Paying God What Belongs to God

[October 19, 2014] Today’s Gospel text continues the theme of reckoning and accountability and judgment that began three Sundays ago. A new and very short phase of Jesus’ ministry began when he entered the city of Jerusalem with the Passover festival crowd of pilgrims on the tenth day of the Jewish month of Nisan, April 2, 30 CE. After his clearing of the Court of the Gentiles—the outer court of the Temple—of merchants, he made the prophetic declaration, “According to scripture, my house will be called a house of prayer; but you are turning it into a bandits’ den” (Matthew 21:12-13). Isaiah 56:7 says, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (that is, gentiles). In Jeremiah 7:11 the prophet accuses the people of Jerusalem of imagining that God would tolerate them using the “Temple that bears my Name as a den of bandits.” In Jeremiah the people thought that they could continue their worship in the Temple while they stole, murdered, committed adultery, perjured themselves and burned incense to Baal, that God would protect them and they could “stay in this place.” God tells them to recall what happened to the Tabernacle in Shiloh and to realize that “I shall drive you out of my sight, as I did all your kinsfolk, the whole race of Ephraim.” Jesus driving out the merchants was a visual depiction of this. In forty years Jesus’ words were fulfilled regarding the Temple, that “Not a single stone here will be left on another: everything will be pulled down” (Matthew 24:2).

The next morning Jesus curses a fig tree because he “found on it nothing but leaves,” that is, he could find no fruit (Matthew 21:18-19). This was also a prophetic action depicting the people of Jerusalem.

After that the chief priests (aristocrats of the priestly caste) and members of the Sanhedrin came to Jesus and demanded to know, “What authority have you for acting like this?” They were referring to the incident in the Temple but also the manner in which he seemed to welcome the adulation of the crowd who hailed him as the “Son of David” (a messianic title) and shouted, “Hosanna” (meaning “save us”), processing him into the Temple with “branches in hand” (recalling the words of Psalm 118:25-27). Jesus did not think they qualified for an answer but instead referred them to their reaction—or rather their inability to react—to the message of John the Baptist who called on the nation to repent.

He then told these people, who represented those who were the “stewards” of the spiritual life of Israel (who were supposed to be the “shepherds of Israel”), three parables. The first concerning the obedience and disobedience of two sons (declaring to them that “tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before you”), the second concerning the tenants of a vineyard who attempted to rob the owner not only of his produce but of the vineyard itself (declaring to them, while referring to Psalm 118:22-23, that “the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit”), and the third concerning those who were invited to the wedding feast of the king’s son and who would not come (Jesus said, “The king was furious. He dispatched his troops, destroyed those murderers and burnt their town,” and then invited instead anyone he could find).

After Jesus told these three parables, representatives of the Pharisees and Sadducees (two contending parties of scribes) came to Jesus and tested him with three questions, which he answered and then followed with a question of his own. Some have compared these questions to those the children ask at the Passover Seder. In any case, in each instance Jesus turns their questions around so that they question the questioner. While the people’s leaders in Jerusalem try to get Jesus to submit to their purported authority, Jesus acts as God’s viceroy or apostle, calling them to account before God’s judgment seat. This is where today’s text falls.

Then in chapter 23 he gives a diatribe against the “scribes and Pharisees” and then in chapter 24 he pronounces God’s judgment on the city and the Temple. He goes on, after declaring how God will save Israel and “gather his elect from the four winds,” in the rest of chapter 24 and in chapter 25, to declare the Messiah’s judgment of his church, and also of the gentiles on the basis of how they treated “the least of these siblings of mine.”

After this we have the telling of the Passion itself when Jesus becomes the Passover Lamb for the passing over of the Israelites on the eve of their deliverance (as in Exodus 12) and their sin offering as depicted in Isaiah 53:10, only in Matthew’s gospel the Messiah’s sacrifice is not only for “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” but also for the lost gentiles who turn to the God of Israel.

This is the context in which the questioning of Jesus takes place in Matthew 22:15-22. The “Pharisees” are out to trap Jesus in his words. These are without doubt the same Pharisees who have contended with Jesus all along, who represent the intolerant school of Shammai rather than the more compassionate school of Hillel. Whether they followed Jesus into the city from Galilee or have their representatives stationed in the city (with their own scribes attached to the Temple teaching their pupils and copying scrolls) does not seem to matter to Matthew. They (as rabbis) send their disciples to Jesus, together with some Herodians, with the question they decided on.

The Pharisees were no friends of the Herodians, just as they were no friends of the Sadducees either. The Herodians, people associated with King Herod who ruled in Galilee as a deputy of the Romans, would have their own reasons to be interested in where Jesus stood on the question of paying taxes to the Emperor. The Pharisees recruited their help not because they were themselves interested in the question but because they wanted Jesus to get into trouble with King Herod. After all, this same tyrant had John the Baptist beheaded and may have been nervous about Jesus as well. Galilee—Herod’s jurisdiction—was a hotbed of rebels and this was where Jesus spent most of his ministry. Herod had an interest in the submission of “his” people to his rule, and the Romans counted on him to acquire and maintain it. And Jesus had the ability to attract huge crowds numbering in the thousands, something that would make any tyrant nervous, especially one that had to answer to a higher tyrant.

So the disciples of the Pharisee posed their question, “Master, we know that you are an honest man and teach the way of God in all honesty, and that you are not afraid of anyone, because human rank means nothing to you,” and blah blah. (They apparently thought they could prompt Jesus to be more forthright with them as if he needed this kind of coaxing.) “Give us your opinion, then,” they said. “Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

They must have thought that Jesus did not agree with paying taxes to Caesar, otherwise it would hardly have been a trap. Jesus would have simply answered, “Yes.” This is interesting for us because we tend to assume that Jesus naturally would have paid the taxes he was legally obliged to. The apostle Paul says in Romans 13:7, “Pay to each one what is due to each: taxes to the one to whom tax is due, tolls to the one to whom tolls are due, respect to the one to whom respect is due, honor to the one to whom honor is due.” According to Matthew’s account here, Jesus would have agreed with this. So the question is, why would the Pharisees have assumed otherwise?

It was the Pharisees of the school of Rabbi Shammai who would have railed against the tax (though whether they did is another matter). Their teachings of intolerance and hatred towards the gentiles helped instigate the Zealot movement that led to the war against the Romans in 66 CE. The nascent zealots of Jesus’ time were inspired by their rhetoric and Jesus’ entire ministry opposed it in word and deed. Moreover, Jesus had a reputation as a friend of tax collectors. So on what grounds would they have assumed that on the matter of the tax Jesus would have agreed with the zealots?

At the moment I can think of two things that might have led them to this conclusion. The first is that Jesus might not in fact pay taxes to the Emperor. He may have been penniless. He apparently had a house in Capernaum, but we do not know how he paid for its lease, if he paid at all, or if he owned it. Otherwise Jesus was an itinerant who was always on the road and depended on the hospitality of others. He was also a friend of tax collectors. Did he pay any taxes to them? I do not know, but these Pharisees may have assumed that he did not.

The second thing is that the crowds were hailing Jesus as the “Son of David,” and in Luke 19:38 they explicitly called him “the King who comes in the Name of the Lord,” not a puppet king like Herod was but rather as a contender of the Emperor himself. Obviously if Jesus is not a subject-king to the Emperor but a high-king subject to no other but God, then he would not pay tax to the Emperor. The question that these Pharisees and Herodians posed to Jesus would force him (or so they thought) to either follow through on this claim to be the “Son of David”—in which case he was committing treason against Rome—or to renounce the foolishness of the crowd, which he refused to do in Matthew 21:15-16. “At the sight of the wonderful things he did and of the children shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’ in the Temple, the chief priests and the scribes were indignant and said to him, ‘Do you hear what they are saying?’ Jesus answered, ‘Yes. Have you never read this: “By the mouths of children, babes in arms, you have made sure of praise”?’”

In other words, whether Jesus did or did not pay taxes to the Emperor in the past, this question was designed to force Jesus to either declare himself to be who the crowd said he was—and thus get himself in trouble with the Roman overlords—or to denounce this ridiculousness—and thus humiliate himself before his followers. In fact, it would not matter. The Romans ended up treated him as a rebel in any case, indicting him on the charge that he claimed to be “the King of the Jews.”

Jesus’ answer was ingenious. “Aware of their malice, Jesus replied, ‘You hypocrites! Show me the coin of the tax.’ They brought to him a denarius.” He did not have such a coin; they did. They paid the tax; the fact that he carried no such coins means that he might not have. Matthew does not say that Jesus handled the coin that they brought to him. He merely asked that they show it to him.

“Whose portrait is this? Whose title?” he asked them. They replied, “Caesar’s.” The coin had the graven image of the Emperor on it and underneath the image were words declaring him to be the son of God. For this reason it was not allowed in the Temple (this was the reason for the money-changers). The money itself was idolatrous on this basis alone (besides the fact that any form of money represented the power of Mammon over people). Perhaps this is why Jesus did not touch it but merely wanted to see it. To whom then does this money belong? It belongs to the one who possesses it, presumably, unless that one is obligated to another. The tax is an obligation to the empire. Even though you have the money in your hand, it does not really belong to you as long as you have a debt to someone else. In this case, the coin is minted by the Romans who thereby assert their legal authority over the economy that uses it.

“Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very well, pay Caesar what belongs to Caesar.’” This is the first part of his answer. You are obligated to Caesar; pay him then. They were obligated to Caesar not only for military protection (which they may not have wanted, but still enjoyed) but for their accumulation of wealth. If you are going to be wealthy, you owe a debt to Caesar, or at least to the government. In fact, you owe a debt to the society whose resources you have amassed to yourself and are enjoying (or are at least harboring for your exclusive use, whether you use or enjoy it or not). Whatever you “own” you are taking out of common use and reserving for your own exclusive you. Therefore you owe others what you have taken from them. If you are wealthy, then you have more than your fair share of what were originally the resources of all. Your hard work may have added value to those resources and you may feel entitled to the added value, but rarely did you create this added value without the help of others. The wealth you pocket is essentially stolen from your workers if you have not paid them in proportion to their contribution of skill, labor and time. The CEO whose income is far out of proportion to what he has paid his workers is a thief.

In any case, that is the issue only in the sense that those who have wealth and privilege are under an obligation to those who made that wealth possible for them. In this case, it is the empire. Wealthy people—Americans at least—who feel that they are not obligated to pay taxes as a way to give back to society are at heart thieves, plain and simply.

By saying this, Jesus answers their question but not in a way that incriminates himself. Not only is it permissible to pay taxes, but those who are obligated to the empire are obligated to pay taxes. He does not say whether he is obligated; he does however insinuate that they are. Whether he is the “Son of David” is, therefore, still an open question, as far as the Pharisees are concerned.

This is not, however, Jesus’ main point. What follows is. He goes on to say, “And pay God what belongs to God.” Matthew tells us, “When they heard this they were amazed; they left him alone and went away,” presumably confounded rather than satisfied.

“Pay God what belongs to God.” This is the whole issue! What Jesus was accusing them of, I think, is that they were not paying God what belonged to God. In 21:13 he accused “them” of turning the Temple into a bandits’ den and in the Parable of the Vineyard and the Tenants he accused them of stealing the fruit of God’s vineyard and of attempting to steal the vineyard itself from God. They were taking or at least keeping for themselves what belonged to God, and they were even willing to use violence towards God’s messengers to achieve this end.

One of the issues was “the fruit in keeping with repentance,” another was the people’s devotion (in the Temple they took advantage of the people’s worship for their own profit), and another was entitlement to the throne of David itself over Jerusalem and over all Israel (they worked with the Romans to maintain their own wealth and power). This was not all.

The people of God belonged to God and they allowed them to wander as sheep without a shepherd. In fact, they despised the poor and unclean and sinful—people who belonged to God and for whom they were responsible. (Of course, they did not despise themselves when they were unclean, as everyone was bound to be at one time or another.) This too was a form of theft. Their self-serving at the expense of others and the accompanying despising of the “outsider” was what they were guilty of—it was stealing from God. The people whom they were keeping from God was what they were stealing from God. They were the vineyard that these men thought they could keep from God. Their worship of God was the fruit that they were keeping from God.

“Pay God what belongs to God.” It is a little too easy for us to sit back and join with Jesus in accusing the foreign people of an ancient city whose culture and concerns we do not share. What do we owe God?

If we are redeemed, meaning that God has purchased us with the price of the blood-shedding of Christ, then we belong to God body, soul and spirit and owe God all our love—the love of all our heart, all our soul (psyche) and all our strength (including our property).

It does not stop there, however. Or rather, we should not assume that we understand all that this includes. In his introduction to his epistle to the Romans, the apostle Paul says, “I have an obligation to Greeks as well as barbarians, to the educated as well as the ignorant, and hence the eagerness on my part to preach the Gospel to you in Rome too” (Romans 1:14-15). The people of the margins, those whom Jesus sought out—if we keep them from God, we too are stealing from God.

Pope Francis is making an effort to stop the Roman Catholic Church from stealing lesbian, gay and bisexual people from God. More recently the extreme cost of discrimination against transgender people has come to the fore of our national attention. Still, some American Christians defend the “right” to discriminate against them. They are stealing from God. Other Christians, and not only transgender Christians (of which there are many), try to show that the Gospel is a story that includes them, that they too are loved by God and called by Christ to be God’s own—not after they renounce how God has created them but as they are. God wants them, not a role that they force themselves to play in order to please others or to avoid their taunts. The church has an obligation to let them know the welcome of Christ. A church betrays Christ when its own unfounded fears and ignorant prejudices come before the Gospel.

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