Matthew 22:15-22 (NRSV)
The Question about Paying Taxes
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21 They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
The religious leaders of Jesus' day were a tricksy bunch. As experts in the Law, they knew the ins and outs of the Torah but, as can so often happen with us religious people, their fascination with the minutiae led them to miss the big picture. In their case, they missed the embodiment of the Law — Jesus — who was standing right in front of them. Jesus didn't just fulfil the requirements of the Law — he was the fulfilment of the promise of the Law.
The disciples of the Pharisees, however, were not there for the promise. They were there for the plot. At worst, they hoped to discredit him. At best, they hoped to have him tried for treason.
Their trap is simple but clever. They lay a quandary before him. 'Should we or should we not pay taxes to the Roman Empire?'
In our day, where taxes are simply deducted from our paycheques and added to our purchases, this doesn't seem like a hot button issue. In the first century, however, it was explosive. At the time, Palestine was a Roman territory and the Jewish people lived under the might of Roman Rule, the oppression of Roman taxes and the fear of Roman repercussions when insurrections would start up under leaders that promised to deliver Israel from Rome. When the oft-promised Messiah came to Israel, this is the kind of leader the people believed he would be. This is why the Pharisee disciples bring the Herodians. They serve King Herod, the puppet King of the Jews, who collected Roman taxes and kept a lid on potential revolt.
If Jesus says, 'Don't pay taxes', he'll be dragged away and tried as a traitor to Herod and the Roman Emperor.
But telling them to pay taxes won't be simple either. You pay taxes with coins and coins are imprinted with the image of Caesar who claims to be the 'Son of God'. Paying taxes to Caesar, in the mind of the Pharisees, means touching an image of a man who is worshipped. An idol. To some, this would be breaking the Second Commandment, 'You shall not make graven images or idols.' To others, it would mean that he was just accepting Roman Rule.
This is Jesus' 'Catch-22'. He's either a revolutionary, a heretic or a Roman sympathiser. The first will get him killed. The second will have him excommunicated. The third will have him discredited. Either way, the tricksy have triumphed. Or think they have.
And this is part of the brilliance of Jesus. It's not just his ethics or his actions, his compassion or his kindness. It's his ability to take an argument of his day and lead people past dualistic thinking into a deeper, more beautiful way of living.
Taking the coin in his hand, he asks, 'Who's image is this?'
Caesar's, they answer.
Give to Caesar that which bears his image. Let Caesar have his coins and his empire.
But 'Give to God what is God's.' So what is God's?
We are. We are the ones who bear his image. And his Kingdom reflects his character. His image is reflected in us as individuals and as a community.
The disciples of the Pharisees leave amazed. They arrived hoping to trap him. They leave realising that they are trapped in a religious system that can't see the forest for the trees.
Scott Evans is the Church of Ireland chaplain to University College Dublin, producer of The Graveyard Shift Podcast and co-founder of Paradoxology, a prayer space at Ireland’s Electric Picnic music festival. He grew up in Bangladesh and his life has been a series of crazy decisions, odd adventures and bad haircuts. He is also the author of 3 books, Closer Still, Beautiful Attitudes and Failing From The Front (& Other Lessons From The Lives of Losers.) He loves Vietnamese food, coffee, writing, Aston Villa and Jesus.