“Answer the question! Yes, or no.”
How do you respond when neither “yes” nor “no” is correct?
For example, an old trick question is, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?”
Such a question presumes that a husband is guilty of spousal abuse. How does a man answer if he has always loved his wife and treated her with kindness?
Jesus was asked a similar kind of trick question. How did he answer, and what can we learn from his response?
Take a moment to read Matthew 22:15-22 (an incident also recorded in Mark 12:13-17 and Luke 20:20-26).
The scene is set when we read (Matthew 22:15-16a):
Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians.
The Pharisees were a religious group focused on living a life that conformed (at least outwardly) with the Jewish law. W. G. Scroggie (A Guide to the Gospels, 48) states they “separated themselves from the ambitious political part in their nation. … Their religious orthodoxy was spiritually barren.”
The Herodians were a political group that supported Herod and his descendants, proxy kings appointed by the occupying Roman forces. This group probably advocated that Herod rule all the areas that make up the modern state of Israel and beyond into parts of Syria and Jordan.
This strange alliance of competing religious and political groups had a common goal of discrediting and destroying Jesus Christ (Mark 3:6). They were planning “to trap him in his words.”
Here’s what they said (22:16b-17):
“Teacher,” they said, “we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
This probably referred to the head tax paid by non-Roman citizens. It was a form of tribute paid by those subjected to Roman rule (Osborne, Matthew, 809).
With words oozing insincerity, they ask, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
The question is designed so that if Jesus says “yes,” then the religious authorities who resisted the Romans would condemn him as disloyal to Israel.
If he says “no,” then the political authorities who supported the Romans would condemn him as a seditious rebel.
So, how did Jesus respond?
Here is his answer (22:18-21):
But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.”
They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose portrait [eikōn] is this? And whose inscription (epigraphē)?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
The narrator tells us that Jesus knew their “evil intent.”
Masterfully, he shifts the view or perspective of the conflict from their contrived question to a more significant level. We will deal with that shift in a moment.
They bring him the requested coin, perhaps of the same kind used to pay the tax. If an image of a human was forbidden according to the scruples of the religious (Exodus 20:4, 23; Deuteronomy 5:8), one wonders what they thought of a coin bearing Caesar’s image being present in the Temple— but I don’t believe that is the issue.
He then asks them a simple question.
The obvious answer is “Caesar’s” because the coin bears his image and the inscription: “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.”
Where could his antagonists go from there? They were left with their thoughts and the implications of what Jesus said. Let’s consider what Jesus does and his opponents’ probable thought processes.
Jesus does not adopt his opponents’ view or perspective of the issue. He will not be limited (and condemned) by their contrived view of the issue.
In addition, the members of both groups would have paid their taxes to Caesar with the same kind of coin. In their hypocrisy, they sought to trick Jesus into giving an answer that supported the Herodians (“yes”) or the Pharisees (“no”)— then condemn him for his answer.
At best, the level of this issue was a choice between one group or the other: between the Pharisees or the Herodians. It is a question of religious versus political sensitivities. God is omitted from their thinking.
Jesus takes a God’s eye view of the real issue. Although he does not explicitly state this new perspective, it will become evident to his audience. The issue now becomes God’s sovereignty versus other authorities claiming sovereignty— in this case, Caesar.
Reference to the coin with Caesar’s image and inscription provides a segue for introducing God’s eye view and his antagonists’ responsibility.
Earlier, we observed that Jesus shifted the issue from the perspective of religious authority versus political authority to God’s authority versus Caesar’s.
His reference to the image and the inscription on the coin continued the issue of competing authorities while introducing a platform for focusing on the authority of God. I propose that the key is the word “image.”
The Greek word eikōn is rendered as “image” in Genesis 1:26-27 in the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX):
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image [eikōn], in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created man in his own image [eikōn], in the image [eikōn] of God he created him; male and female he created them.
The significance of this word eikōn is hidden in some of our modern English translations, such as the NIV (“portrait”) and NLT (“picture”). For Jesus’ audience, the word eikōn would trigger a connection with Genesis 1:26-27.
David Ball puts it well, concluding that:
Jesus’ audience is prompted to ask, What, exactly, is God’s? If the coins are Caesar’s because they bear Caesar’s likeness and inscription, then by analogy what bears God’s likeness and inscription.
Ball also proposes the “inscription” would have reminded the opponents of such texts as Exodus 13:9:
This observance will be for you like a sign on your hand and a reminder on your forehead that the law of the LORD is to be on your lips. For the LORD brought you out of Egypt with his mighty hand.
This is not a new understanding of this text. For instance, almost 2,000 years ago, Tertullian (160-240 AD) wrote:
The coin that bears Caesar's image [eikōn] belongs to Caesar, but the entire person who is God's image [eikōn] belongs to God.
Modern Bible scholars such as Giblin, Gundry, Bruner, Wilkins, Ball, and others confirm this interpretation.
Here are five comments that are drawn from Matthew 22:15-22. You might have more.
Identify the underlying presumption of the issue being argued. Is it flawed or limiting?
If so, discern what the real issue is from God’s perspective. What is at stake in the larger context of God and his Kingdom?
In this case, the issue was which of the two competing human authorities was superior. Jesus changed to a divine perspective: How did these authorities (i.e., Caesar’s) stack up against God’s authority?
You might wonder how to identify presumptions and discern a divine perspective in your conflicts.
A way to equip yourself— probably the fundamental way— is to read the Bible in large sections regularly.
The more you read God’s ‘Story’ (the Bible), the more you become aware of God’s perspective, and the more able you will be to see, understand, and live life through the lens of God’s perspective.
Many, if not most, of us have constructed water-tight compartments in our lives. There is a compartment for religious or spiritual life, another for business life, another for family, another for entertainment, and so on. So, for example, we might allow practices in our business life that we know are wrong in our religious life, but since they are separated, we pretend there is no problem.
Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, such compartmentalization turns us into conflicted individuals with distorted identities and dysfunctional relationships. Who are we? At any given time, are we the businessperson with questionable practices, the political devotee to a party or issue, the loving family member, or the upright Christian? Does it depend on who we are with or where we are?
Such compartmentalization results in unfaithfulness to our Lord in many areas of our lives. We must dismantle these compartments and submit to God as sovereign— as Lord— of every nook and cranny of our lives.
This is a vast topic; we should explore it in a separate article. Here are a few brief (probably oversimplified) comments.
In this conflict, Jesus teaches us that God is sovereign over every other authority, ruler, and power, whether on earth or elsewhere (e.g., the spiritual realm).
Governments are servants of God possessing a measure of his delegated authority to govern. Whether they acknowledge this or not, whether they are just or unjust, they are accountable to God, who is responsible for dealing with them (e.g., Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17).
For the follower of Jesus, the default position is submission to governmental authority (including the payment of taxes) up to the point where a government comes into conflict with the clear will of God.
As a general summary, Donald A. Hagner rightly states (Matthew, 2:637):
If one rendered the state its restricted due, all the more is one to render to God his unrestricted due— the totality of one’s being and substance, one’s existence, is to be rendered to God and nothing less.
Lord, might it be so in each of our lives.
Photo credit: By DrusMAX - Self-photographed
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