Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “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. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away. Matthew 22:15-22
In one of the Facebook theological groups of which I am a member, someone posed the question, “Would Jesus stand with his hand over his heart during the national anthem, or would he take a knee?” Several people responded, making arguments for both options, but the answer I liked best was “He would probably do something surprising”, because that’s exactly what he did in the incident recorded in today’s gospel passage.
As the story of Jesus according to Matthew progresses toward its conclusion, the relationship between Jesus and the religious elite becomes more and more adversarial. After getting into a very public confrontation by chasing the money changers out of the Temple, Jesus tells several parables, all of which cast the religious leaders in a bad light. They respond by trying to publicly trip him up with “gotcha” questions, which is what they are doing in today’s reading. The question is designed to have no good answer. If he responds one way, he’s in trouble with the Roman government; if he responds the other way, he’s in trouble with the general public. As you may recall, crowds of people had just waved palm branches, welcoming Jesus into town as the messiah they hoped would liberate them from Roman oppression. It was a simple yes or no, forced-choice question, but instead of being entrapped in their no-win scenario, Jesus gives an answer no one had anticipated. It’s also an interesting detail to note that the religious leaders have no difficulty producing a denarius while within the confines of the temple courts, where this incident takes place. Part of the function of the money changers was to change Roman coins, which bore not only the idolatrous assertion that Caesar was a god but also his graven image, into shekels. Or was that rule only applicable to the little people, not to the one-percenters? No wonder Jesus called them hypocrites!
Jesus says “give to Caesar what is Caesar, and to God what is God’s“. Devout Jews would have understood that everything belongs to God. As the psalmist Asaph wrote, we can’t “give” God anything except our loyalty. God “owns the cattle on a thousand hills” and Job observed that “naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised” Everything comes from God and belongs to God, and the principle of stewardship teaches that God wants us to to use all God has given us responsibly and well, thinking not only of our own needs and wants but also those of others. There’s quite a lot in the Bible, especially in the writings of the prophets, applying this same principle to governments. Rulers are supposed to take care of the people who live under their governance, not just use their nation’s resources to indulge their own whims. They are supposed to be instruments of justice and righteousness, especially for the poor, widows and orphans. “Open your mouth, judge righteously, And defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.” Furthermore, as the Bible tells it, God causes the fall of nation after nation when they abdicate these responsibilities, beginning with Sodom and continuing through dozens of others, including Israel and Judah.
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s“, but what is Caesar’s, and what is God’s? Where is the line between patriotism and idolatry? It must have grated on Jewish nationalists to think that a large part of the taxes they paid to Rome went to finance the vast Roman military, including those who were brutally occupying their homeland. It would have also bothered devout Jewish people to think that part of the money they paid in taxes was used to fund pagan temples and their sacrifices to idols. This would not be dissimilar to those today who do not want their tax dollars being spent to pay for things they do not support or believe to be morally wrong, such as wars or birth control. It is also not dissimilar to those who take a knee during the playing of the national anthem in order to protest what they believe to be their nation’s unjust treatment of its minorities.
Instead of answering the question posed to him by the Pharisees and their frenemies the Herodians, Jesus asked them to think about where their ultimate loyalties lay, and left it up to them to decide what actions ought to be taken in light of those loyalties. And I think he’s asking us to do the same.