Year A: Twenty-Ninth Sunday Ordinary Time
Paying Taxes to the Emperor
Matthew 22: 15-21
Then the Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap him in speech. They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin. He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription? They replied, “Caesar’s.” At that he said to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” When they heard this, they were amazed, and leaving him they went away.
In Jesus’ time, the Herodians were influential Jewish supporters of Herod Antipas. They likely supported his political policies which would have favored Roman law and culture in Palestine. Therefore, Herodians would have been against the Jewish messianic movement and Jesus’s message. The Herodians would have sat between traditional Jewish faith and culture but were faithful in supporting Roman authority. So, they try to trap Jesus into giving an “either-or” answer, which will be a self-indictment.
- How do you avoid the trap Jesus faces in this story, of thinking God is aligned with specific political agendas?
- Balancing God and Caesar: Who are the “Caesars” of your life that sometimes demand from you, what should be given to God?
- What do you think is the significance of Jesus having to ask someone for a coin in order to make his point?
- This story is another way of saying for Christians, everything falls under the umbrella of God. How do you consciously abide in God, (remain loyal to God) when making decisions about who or what has a rightful claim on your time and devotion?
Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ
In the past few weeks, we’ve heard Jesus narrate parables that called friends and enemies to conversion. That’s another way of saying that he told parables that angered his opposition. Today’s Gospel opens with the explanation that Jesus’ enemies were forging new alliances in their campaign to undo him. This is the first time we hear about the Herodians — a group that doesn’t need any more description than their name indicates; they aligned themselves with the brutal ruler, Herod Antipas. The disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians, a very odd coalition, plan a verbal trap for Jesus.
The oil of insincerity oozes through the scene as they open their ambush with praise for Jesus as a truthful teacher who doesn’t pander to anyone. (This is not the only time that Jesus is in the awkward position of having hypocrites or demons praise him for who he really is.) The loquacious speakers finally get to their point and ask about the legitimacy of collaborating with the Romans by paying taxes. Lest anyone wonder what Jesus really thought about his questioners and their creative dilemma, he immediately addresses them as hypocrites, and makes it clear to everyone listening that their intent is only to test him. They have no interest in looking for an answer and no personal investment in the question.
Disingenuous as they may be, their question is legitimate. If Jesus tells people to refuse to pay taxes, he’s siding with rebels and perhaps calling down more wrath than the case warrants. On the other hand, paying taxes could be read as a sign of accepting and thereby legitimizing the rule of the pagan Romans. This is probably the first description of a church/state conflict in Christian history.
When Jesus asks to see a coin, the first thing we notice is that his questioners have Roman money, thereby collaborating with the system at least to the extent that they carry something that bears the sort of graven image forbidden by strict Jews. The injunction against images was a stringent application of the commandment in Exodus: “You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth” (20:4). While the application of that commandment forbad any sort of depiction of human beings or creatures, its intent was to forbid idolatry, the worship of or consecration to any person, creature or thing other than God.
When Jesus asked whose image was on the coin, the group’s ability to produce one pointed out that they carried Roman money that featured an image of Caesar, the inscription on which called Caesar Augustus a divinity. Jesus didn’t comment on the coin’s idolatrous implications but neutralized the dichotomy, rising above it with a typically enigmatic response.
While our translation says “repay” to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, others say “give” or “render.” Whichever translation one uses, the answer is a riddle. The first part is fairly simple: With some prayer and discernment, we can determine what belongs to Caesar. There may be some debate about government’s legitimate rights, but at some point, there will be a limit to what the government can demand of citizens. We can be genuinely dedicated to the nation and the common good without falling into the idolatry of blind obedience. But when it comes to giving to God what belongs to God, what falls outside of that category?
A Delicate Balance
Power corrupts. Honesty and integrity are hard to maintain in positions of power, as highlighted by Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees and Herodians in today’s Gospel. Those who ask him an impossible question (“Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”) are unconcerned with the truth; they seek only to entrap him. There is nothing Jesus can say that will be “correct” in that setting: he will be pegged either as a Jewish revolutionary or as a Roman sympathizer.
If Jesus were a contemporary politician, he would perhaps pivot or try to appease the people in the room by stretching the truth. Yet Jesus seeks truth, not victory. His message is grounded not in the power of this world but, as Paul says, “in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction” (1 Thess 1:5). His answer invites the audience not to political wrangling but to introspection and discernment.
As Christians, we are called to active political and social engagement, yet the danger is becoming overly caught up in the systems of this world. Jesus instructs us to give politics the attention it deserves and to give God the attention God deserves. In other words, do not mistake one for the other. We are invited to reflect on this delicate balance and the notion that, ultimately, for people of faith, there is no such thing as divided attention: the focus we give to the things of this world should always be grounded in and fully attentive to God.
Mahri Leonard-Fleckman, adapted from Ponder: Contemplative Bible Study
Mahri Leonard-Fleckman is an assistant professor of the Hebrew Bible in the Religious Studies Department at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. She is the author of Little Rock Scripture Study’s three-volume Ponder series and coauthor of Ruth in the Wisdom Commentary series.