Commentary on Matthew 22:15-22

by Dr. Knox Chamblin

GOD AND CAESAR. 22:15-22.

I. THE JEWS' QUESTION. 22:15-17.

A. The Questioners. 22:15-16a.

On the differences between 22:15-16 and Mk 12:13, see Carson, 458.

1. The Pharisees. Their attitude toward Jesus is by now well known to the reader of Mt. In a variety of ways Jesus has greatly offended them - by his habit of eating with sinners (9:11), by his attitude toward the Sabbath (12:2), by his disrespect for the tradition of the elders (15:1-2, 12), by his teaching on divorce and remarriage (19:3-9), and by his words of judgment against them (21:45). Not surprisingly then, they accuse him of being an agent of Satan (9:34; 12:24); and they begin quite early to plot his murder (12:14). Hoping to achieve this objective by the agency of the authorities, they question Jesus on the subject of divorce (see comments on 19:3). Their present question will serve the same purpose.

2. The Herodians. The Herodianoi were partisans of Herod the Great and his family - including now his son Herod Antipas. They have "come to Jerusalem from the territories ruled by Antipas (Galilee and Perea) to celebrate the Passover" (Gundry, 442).

B. The Motive.

The Pharisees' intent is "to trap [Jesus] in his words." (The verb pagideu© is a hunting term, "to set a snare or trap," BAGD). That the Pharisees on this occasion set their trap by means of their disciples (but see Mk 12:13), puts the Pharisees in a more sinister light, as powerful instigators of evil (like the big boss of a crime syndicate) who use henchmen to carry out their designs, thus protecting themselves from direct assault.

C. The Trap.

After first setting Jesus up with flattering words (v. 16) - the truth of which will become all too clear before this conversation is over! - the Pharisees and the Herodians pose their question: "Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" What makes this such a clever trap?

1. The tax. The coin is the denarius (Greek dsnarion), v. 19, a Roman silver coin in common use. We have previously met references to it in the parables of the unforgiving slave (18:28) and the generous owner (20:2, 9, 10, 13); it is not to be confused with the coinage used for the temple tax (17:24-27). One particular use of the coin is in view here. The question raised one of the most explosive and most emotional political issues of the day in Judea - as it had been since 6 A.D., when Judea was made a Roman province and became obligated to pay tribute to the emperor (Lane, Mark, 423). "Some Jews maintained that the payment of taxes to a pagan ruler constituted high treason to God...and revolted against Rome under Judas the Galilean [Acts 5:37]. The revolt was crushed, but its spirit survived among the Zealots" (Bruce, Matthew, 71), who refused to pay the tribute-money.

2. The position of Jesus' antagonists. "Since Antipas [ruled] under Roman authority, the Herodians naturally favored payment of the tax to Rome. Though paying, the Pharisees shared the common Jewish resentment of the tax" (Gundry, 442). The question of v. 17 might have arisen from genuine concerns: "It could be assumed that the Pharisees were concerned chiefly [with] the moral and religious implications of the question, and the Herodians with its political or nationalistic ramifications. In point of fact the question is insincere" (Lane, Mark, 423). As the context shows, the question is hostile. As with Pharisees and Sadducees (16:1-4), the only thing that joins Pharisees to Herodians is their common enemy.

3. The strategy. Jesus' opponents "personify the two horns of a dilemma" (Gundry, 442). If Jesus favors paying the tax, the Pharisees can use this to arouse and solidify opposition to him among the common people (on whom Pharisees exerted powerful influence); for them the tax was economically burdensome and politically odious. And if Jesus opposes payment, the Herodians might charge him with sedition against Rome. Either way, the outcome would serve the Pharisees' murderous design.

II. JESUS' RESPONSE. 22:18-22.

A. Jesus the Debater.

As we come to the second of the five debates occurring in the temple during the Tuesday of Passion Week (cf. Appendix B.), an observation is in order. Nowhere is Jesus' clear-headedness and coolness under pressure more evident than here, amid these final controversies with the Jewish authorities. He is surrounded by enemies of every kind, and assaulted with every conceivable kind of trick and trap. Yet he alone is in command and in control. It is his enemies who are put to confusion and shame. This is definitely not the sort of behavior that one would expect from a religious fanatic who strives to force God into ushering in the Eschaton - as Albert Schweitzer argued (The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 368-69). In the words of Stephen Neill, "Servants of God do not try to bend history to their purposes. There is no trace in Jesus, as presented in any of the sources, of that kind of arrogance which would rebel against the wise guidance of God and try to force his hand.... The ruthless logic of the dialectic of Jesus in his discussions with his enemies in the last week of his life does not in the least suggest the intemperate excitement of a fanatic" (The Interpretation of the New Testament, 1861-1961, 199-200). It is precisely Jesus' bondage to the Father's will, that accounts for the freedom so evident in these debates.

B. Jesus the Judge. 22:18.

"But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, 'You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?'" The questioners' hypocrisy is obvious. The Pharisees' attitude towards Jesus prior to this encounter, makes it clear that in saying Jesus "teaches the way of God in accordance with the truth" (v. 16), the Pharisees (with the Herodians) are expressing the very opposite of what they really believe about him. That Jesus recognizes that the question is a trap, but proceeds nonetheless to respond to it, increases the reader's eagerness to know his answer.

C. Jesus the Teacher. 22:19-21.

1. Stage One, 22:19-21a.

a. The request. Jesus asks for "the coin used for paying the tax." We need not infer that Jesus had no coin (either because he was poor or because he refused to use this coinage) and had to depend on someone else to produce one. The request of v. 19 - like the question of v. 20 - is Jesus' way of involving his listeners in the process of answering the question.

b. The engraving. The coin bears a twofold ascription to Caesar — his "portrait" and his "inscription." The denarius was engraved on both sides. On the obverse side were the head of the emperor Tiberius (who reigned 14-37 A.D.) wearing a laurel wreath, and the words Ti. Caesar Divi Aug. F. Augustus, Latin for "Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus (27 B.C.-A.D. 14); cf. the titles of Lk 2:1; 3:1. The reverse side bore the figure of the emperor's mother Livia as an earthly incarnation of the goddess Pax (Latin for "peace") and the legend Pontifex Maximus, Latin for "high priest" (a title related to the Roman emperor cult). See Marshall, Luke, 735-36; Lane, Mark, 424; and the picture of this coin in NBD, 1276 (s.v. "Tiberius").

c. The lesson. Why does Jesus draw attention to the portrait and inscription on the coin? "The portrait and legend demonstrated the right of the sovereign who coined the money to demand tribute from the provincials, in keeping with the common understanding that the emperor owned the coins which bore his image" (Lane, Mark, 424). In acknowledging that the portrait and inscription are "Caesar's" (v. 21a), the people are acknowledging that the coin itself is his.

2. Stage Two, v. 21b.

a. Indebtedness to Caesar. With the words, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's," Jesus builds on the people's reply in v. 21a. If the coin belongs to Caesar, it is right that it be given to him. Or, more precisely, that it be given back to him: Whereas the questioners use the simple verb did mi ("give"), v. 17, Jesus uses the compound apodid©mi ("give back," "return"), v. 21b. This change indicates "that payment of the tax is as obligatory as payment of a debt, for it is a debt" (Gundry, 443). "The acceptance and usage of Caesar's coinage implicitly acknowledged his authority and therefore the obligation to pay the tax" (Lane, 424). The phrase ta Kaisaros "goes beyond the payment of taxes and refers to rendering to the ruler whatever he may lawfully prescribe.

The saying affirms the general principle of submission to political authority" (Marshall, Luke, 736). The apostolic teaching in Rom 13:1-7 and 1 Pet 2:13-17 rests on that of Jesus. Note that Mt 22:21 (and parallels) and Rom 13:7 have apodid©mi in common.

b. Indebtedness to God. Jesus' concluding words, "Give God what is God's," provide not only a supplement to his words about Caesar, but also the essential key to understanding what he means - and does not mean - by "giving to Caesar."

(i) The dangers. Precisely because of the obligation to submit to the civil and imperial authorities, one must beware of the grave dangers inherent in such a commitment. In paying taxes to Caesar, there are far greater risks involved than violating Ex 20:4 (on the question whether, in view of the Second Commandment, Jewish sensibilities were disturbed by the presence of Caesar's "image" on the coin, see comments on 21:12-17). He must beware supremely of allowing himself to succumb to statism and to emperor worship. There is pressure from the side of Caesar, that subjects be utterly submissive and totally subservient - to the point of rendering adoration to Caesar as divine (cf. the inscription, quoted above). But there is also pressure from within the subjects themselves. It is easy for those who pay taxes (then and now) to depend increasingly upon their overlords to provide life abundant. The effect of these twin pressures is that Caesar becomes a rival god both demanding and freely receiving the subject's ultimate allegiance. Cf. 2 Thess 2:1-12 (the gravest peril arises when the state ceases to be "that which restrains" evil and becomes instead the chief perpetrator of evil) and Rev 13:1-18 (where the "beast" represents the Roman emperor, and the "false prophet" the pagan priesthood promoting the emperor cult).

(ii) The safeguard. The only way to withstand that temptation is steadfast allegiance to the one true God. By setting "God" over against "Caesar," Jesus tacitly protests "against the idolatrous claims advanced on the coins" (Lane, 424). Only by "giving to God what belongs to him," can one fulfill his indebtedness to Caesar without becoming Caesar's slave. "Loyalty to the civitas can safely be nurtured only if the civitas is not the object of highest loyalty" (Richard John Neuhaus). Jesus' first imperative, "Give to Caesar," only becomes meaningful and operative when it is firmly based upon the second, "Give to God." Normally, one obeys the second by obeying the first; but one may have to obey the second instead of the first (Acts 5:29). Moreover, when we view this statement in the light of Jesus' teaching in Mt as a whole, it becomes clear that the only context in which Jesus' commandment is workable, is the community of the kingdom, the Christian Church. These people alone receive the graces and the powers necessary for remaining slaves of God and Christ alone, while obediently fulfilling their responsibilities to the state. "The first phrase ["Render to Caesar"] addressed a 'yes' to the payment of tribute that was impossible for any Jew; only the one who followed Jesus' total demand and gave God what was due to God found release from the impasse that Gentile imperialism meant for those living in the Jewish theocracy under the Law" (Leonhard Goppelt, Theology of the New Testament, 1: 113). Compare comments on 5:17-48; 19:4-12.

D. The Effect. 22:22.

Why were the questioners "amazed" by Jesus' words? Was it the sheer authority and profundity of his answer? his proving himself to be just what they had (insincerely) affirmed him to be? In any case their trap failed to spring, "so they left him and went away" - only to claim in due course that their trap had worked (Lk 23:2).