The King’s defence
After three parables where Jesus said the chief priests had been shown up before the people for rejecting God Matthew’s account moves on to three questions to attack Jesus, followed by a question to them by Jesus. I have mentioned a few times in this series how Matthew likes to group things in threes, it is a very structured Gospel, which is probably why my autistic brain likes it. The religious authorities are now on the attack and Jesus is on the defensive.
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. 16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marvelled. And they left him and went away.Matthew 22:15-22 ESVUK
The political question
Who were the Pharisees and Herodians
The first question was asked by the Pharisees. The Pharisees did not like the tax of an occupying power, The Pharisees did not like that Caesar called himself a God, and the Pharisees did not like that these high taxes kept poor people poor. The Herodians supported Herod whose authority came from Rome. The Pharisees and Herodians were enemies.
Whose side would Jesus take? If he said it was OK to pay the tax he would upset not only the Pharisees but also the people. Who likes paying tax? Actually, I do. I never resented paying tax. I like that my rubbish is collected because of taxes, that schooling is free because of taxes, that roads are repaired because of taxes and that we have a free health service because of taxes – well worth paying for. For the Jews there was none of this, most of their taxes went to pay for an occupying army; resentment was understandable.
Jesus sees through the plot and knows that both saying ‘yes’ and ‘no’ would lead him into trouble. His answer is diplomatic and not what I have heard in a sermon.
Does, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” mean we should obey rulers in everything? I’d say no. Caesar was supposed to be worshipped as a God, this was the thing the Pharisees hated the most because worship belongs to God alone not Caesar. Worship does not belong to Caesar, so in saying, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” Jesus said that Caesar is not to be worshipped and by saying, “And to God the things that are God’s,” Jesus declared that the worship Caesar demands belongs to God.
The Commonwealth celebrated the platinum jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II recently. Whilst I admire her and find the length of her reign remarkable I found the sycophantic way many of the media commentators were over-the-top in their praise to be unrealistic. Worship belongs to God alone, and worship has to be realistic. On the very slim chance that the Queen is reading this, congratulations ma’am.
But there is a third point Jesus made. Humans bear God’s image. When Jesus looked at the coin and said, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” He was not only saying the coin belonged to Caesar but that humans bear the image of God. All humans, belong to God.
This passage mirrors the first of the questions jesus raised in the preceding three parables: He told a story of a son who told his father he would work in the vineyard but did not go. The meaning was that the chief priests had rejected God the Father. But now Jesus moves it on: The Father does not reject you, whoever you are, whatever you have done, but has put his image in you. He loves you and want’s you to turn back to him.
You belong to God, and God loves and cares for you. Unlike Caesar, God deserves our worship and also unlike Caesar God does not demand to be worshipped, but asks for a free-will response to his love.
God loves you, are you going to respond to that love?