It’s a trap!
In our gospel lectionary from Matthew this week, Jesus finds himself in a trap. Perhaps it was the strange alliance of Pharisees with Herodians – two groups that generally worked at cross purposes, politically – that put Jesus on alert. Perhaps it was the heaped flattery that masked their opening salvo or his divine intuition. In any case, Jesus is very aware that these latest conversation partners are not working in good faith.
The question they ask him lands squarely on a political hot-button issue of first-century Palestine. It’s a loaded question that would feel natural in one of our modern presidential debates — a question designed to force a candidate to align with one group and alienate another. The question is about money and power, as most political questions are: is it lawful for the Jewish people to pay taxes to the Roman government?
So far in Matthew, Jesus has said a lot about the Jewish Law but almost nothing about Roman laws. That very silence tells us something about his esteem for his people’s conquerors. But now the Herodians (who worked quite pragmatically with the Romans) and the Pharisees (who preached the purity of a holy nation) have quite literally forced the point. Even the word for tax – kensos – is on loan from the Latin census.
Many in Jesus’ audience were surely hoping that he would say no. It’s one thing to be occupied and oppressed, but another to pay to be subjugated. We know from Acts 5:37 that a few years before Jesus, Judas the Galilean managed to whip up a rebellion over the very issue of the census. (“Tax” in this text, kensos, comes from the Latin census.) Judas and his followers were killed for the attempt. In the shadow of that painful history, there were probably many others in Jesus’ audience rooting for him to say yes. Rome had won – fair and square by military rules – and surely it was better to pay the tax if it could preserve Jewish lives. Perhaps there were people in the crowd – people who really loved Jesus – who were hoping he could ‘make it make sense’ for them. Give them a way to pay their taxes without feeling stripped of dignity, without feeling like collaborators.
And this, in my opinion, is what Jesus manages. He asks for a denarius, minted with the head of Caesar on one side. The Greek text, however, does not specify that the coin has Caesar’s head on it, but his image — his eikon. Faithful readers of the Septuagint would have immediately picked up on that word because eikon is how the Greek Old Testament renders Genesis 1:27 when God makes people in God’s own image.
Caesar has a lot of power. He can conquer nations. He can demand taxes. He can print his own face on silver and gold. But what exists in his image is paltry compared to what exists in God’s image — God’s own people. Caesar may be able to control the people of Israel, but he cannot create them, inspire them, move them, work in and through and amongst them. That power belongs only to God.
Paying the tax is a burden — sometimes a deadly one. Not paying the tax is a risk — sometimes a deadly one. Jesus, in a most un-politician-like move, trusts the discernment of his hearers for their own situations. He leaves the actual choice up to the people in the audience. They can decide the coins with Caesar’s head belong to Caesar and pay or they can decide that “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,” (Psalm 24:1) and withhold payment. But either way, it is their choice, their theology, their wisdom, and their dignity that is upheld.
The Herodians and Pharisees go away amazed. They had wanted Jesus to make the people angry, to paint him as a traitor or criminal or both. But instead of anger, Jesus gave the people hope.
Instead of anger, Jesus gave the people hope. … Hope that the people of God might not divide themselves by how they answer trick questions but see each other ineffably as bearers of the image of God.
Hope that while Caesar has much power and money and might – and can do much real and painful harm – he is nothing compared to the power and mercy of God. Hope that the people of God might not divide themselves by how they answer trick questions but see each other ineffably as bearers of the image of God.
It is an invitation, even when politics have entered the room, to keep working in good faith.
It’s an invitation we could use today.
Questions for reflection:
- What is the history of interpretation you have received about this passage? (What have you been told it “means?”)
- What “trick questions” pop up often in the life of your congregation? How have you noticed such questions affecting the fabric of your community?
- How do you personally discern what “belongs to Caesar” and what “belongs to God?”