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Gospel Reflection

In Matthew 21-22, representatives from a number of Jewish leadership groups come to

Jesus with questions: The question in Matthew 22:17 is brought by disciples of the Pharisees and
the Herodians, an unlikely pairing of partisans, if the Herodians represent the interests of Herod
and other clients of Rome within his circle. Yet representatives of both groups come in order to
"trap" Jesus by providing him with a lose/lose situation. But first they smooth the way by
speaking of Jesus' integrity, commitment to truth and equity, and lack of concern for the opinions
of others.
Their question is short and to the point: "Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?"
The tax in view is the census tax, a per person tax of a denarius. The conundrum for Jesus is this:
If he answers yes, then he could be perceived as in collusion with Rome, justifying Roman
occupation and oppression of the Jews. This would not be a popular answer among the Jewish
people. On the other hand, if Jesus answers no, he could be suspected of revolutionary sentiment
against Rome.
Jesus answers and shows that he is aware of their trickery. He calls them "hypocrites,"
because they show something on the outside that is quite opposite of what is true internally Jesus
calls for a coin--a denarius presumably the cost of the tax, and he asks them to identify whose
image is on the coin. When they identify the emperor's face and title, Jesus delivers an amazing
and rather ambiguous one-liner: "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's,
and to God the things that are God's".
The key interpretive issue of this passage rests in the meaning of this statement. The first
clause on its own indicates that the tax should be paid, since the emperor's image and inscription
on the coin would cause it to fall under "things that are the emperor's." On the other hand, the
final clause places a question mark on what belongs to whom! Given Jesus' repeated use of the
Old Testament highlighted throughout Matthew and his preaching of the arrival of God's
kingdom, it is difficult to imagine that Jesus would see much of anything falling outside of "the
things that are God's"
The beauty of Jesus' answer is that he both concedes payment of the census tax while
subverting the reach of the emperor. If read one way, Jesus' answer is simply an affirmation of
Christian submission to governing authorities. Yet if read from another angle, Jesus affirms the
all encompassing reach of God's ownership in a way that relativizes imperial claims of right to
rule. The denarius which Jesus called his questioners to produce read "Tiberius Caesar, August
Son of the Divine Augustus" on one side and "Pontifex Maximus" on the other. Into the
reverberation of such all encompassing and even idolatrous claims, Jesus here reasserts God's
ownership and rule.
How is it that we might hear the impact of this story in our own contexts? What are the
all-encompassing claims of ownership and right that Jesus would relativize for his people today?
At the core, the issues raised by this biblical passage are ones of allegiance. If God owns all, then
we belong to God alone. Yet we live a life in which competing powers and influences vie to own
us, to sway us, to capture our hearts. The tendency, for example, for what we own to exert
ownership on us means we need to guard against consumerism and materialism as competing
allegiances to our loyalty to God. The questions raised by this text and our preaching of it must
address the call of Jesus to live in whole hearted allegiance to God, while navigating in life
contexts that often pull at that allegiance. Such navigation is not easy, and we would do well to
seek God's wisdom and discernment as we desire to follow Jesus in a world full of siren songs.
Yet Jesus is the source of God's wisdom--his wisdom shows through in his answer to this test by
the Pharisees and Herodians.
In the end, these questioners of Jesus go away amazed. Amazement is not such a bad
response to seek to reproduce in those to whom we are preaching. If they, and we, would leave
an encounter with this biblical text amazed at the Jesus portrayed there--a Jesus not easily
categorized, a Jesus wise in his answers to testing, a Jesus whose first allegiance is to the all-
encompassing scope of God's reign--then we will have done our job.