“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Generally quoted in its King James version, “Render unto Caesar,” this statement somehow comes easily adrift from its gospel moorings and is usually cited in support of political theories, from tax reforms to freedom of religion in the modern state.
We see this sentence in today’s reading from Matthew 22. Jesus and his closest disciples are in one of the temple courtyards in Jerusalem, where Jesus has been storytelling and teaching. Much of that teaching has been in response to an earlier direct challenge to his authority. Toward the end of a series of teaching parables in Chapters 21 and 22, Matthew tells us that “when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard these parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds because the crowds regarded Jesus as a prophet.”
Questions about Jesus’ authority had been aired throughout his public ministry, but Matthew wants us to understand that the tensions between Jesus and the temple authorities are now reaching critical proportions. In Chapter 22, Matthew writes: “the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap [Jesus] in what he said.”
And now Jesus comes under even more pressure: the temple authorities – chief priests and Pharisees – have already determined to remove him from the public eye. Now the Pharisees have brought members of the Herodians along. These are the courtiers and clients of Herod, Rome’s puppet king. They represent not only the Jewish ruling authority in Judaea outside the city of Jerusalem, but also the threat of Roman intervention in Jesus’ public ministry. Notoriously, Herod and his followers accommodated the Roman occupying power. So when the Herodians show up to listen to Jesus, the authority of Caesar has now entered the scene.
Having built up the picture of powerful challengers, both temple and Roman, now surrounding Jesus on all sides, Matthew shifts gear. Introducing a moment of exaggerated inflated rhetoric typical of any eastern Mediterranean court at that time, he briefly breaks the narrative tension. Pharisees and Herodians alike begin by flattering Jesus, saying, “Teacher we know that you are sincere and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one, for you do not regard people with partiality.”
Entrapment begins with flattery. But then comes what is doubtless meant to be an absolutely killer question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”
A moment’s thought should convince us, however, that this method of entrapping Jesus in his teaching might be a bit silly. Certainly, the Pharisees have heard Jesus teaching before now and they have watched him outwit all his interlocutors, often with quite edgy humor. Their question wants a yes or no answer. Yes, would mean that Jesus is prepared to abandon God’s priorities to accommodate the Romans. No, would mean Jesus is willing to side with rebel political groups such as the Zealots who want the Romans out at all costs. Do they not realize Jesus is too clever to fall into such a simple trap?
We notice that Jesus does not answer the question at all. He turns to the people nearest to him and asks for the coin that is used for the tax. It is interesting that Jesus does not carry such a coin himself. In his lifetime, there were several different tax obligations for a Jew in Jerusalem: the temple tithe incumbent upon all Jews meant one sort of coinage, but the newest tax was the Roman colonial land tax, payable in imperially minted coinage. The fact that Jesus apparently has no such coin is one of several indications in the gospels that Jesus of Nazareth owned neither urban property in lower Galilee nor farmland anywhere else. Jesus stands there, in other words, without any worldly resources in a potentially dangerous situation.
“Whose head is on this coin?” he asks. Because the coin is the Roman land-tax coin, the answer is “Caesar’s.” It might be the head of Augustus, or it might be the head of Tiberius, Matthew does not need to say. Jesus represents the authority neither of the temple nor of the Roman governor. The future of those two political entities, and the monetary tributes that support them, is not Jesus’ future. Nor are those entities the governing factor in the future of those early Christians for whom Matthew is writing. When Matthew’s Jesus says that Pharisee and Herodian alike should give Caesar his due, and give God his due, there is only one future at stake, and that is God’s future. For Matthew, as for ourselves, the reality of that future lies with Jesus: the living face of God.
Shortly after this episode, there is a brief confrontation between Jesus and members of another political body, the Sadducee party; and Matthew notes that from that day, nobody dared to ask Jesus any more questions. The gospel continues with a set of future-oriented parables and sayings given mostly to Jesus’ closest disciples, and then transitions into the great Passion narrative. We leave the reading ruminating upon the possibility that this business never was about coins, tax reforms, or divided loyalties.
As it says in the first chapter of Genesis, we are created “in the image and likeness” of God. We try to live into that empowering image in our political adherences, our economic aims for ourselves and our neighbors, our hopes for our families and friends. In all the complex claims on our loyalties and our finances, our tax dollars and our pension funds, for the children of God there is always and only ever this one priority and one claim upon our lives: the authoritative call and presence of God.