Matthew 22:15-22

HUMAN AND DIVINE RIGHT

Matt. 22:15-22

Then the Pharisees came, and tried to form a plan to ensnare him in his speech. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are true, and that you teach the way of God in truth, and that you never allow yourself to be swayed by any man, for you are no respecter of persons. Tell us, then, your opinion–is it right to pay tribute to Caesar, or not?” Jesus was well aware of their malice. “Hypocrites,” he said, “why do you try to test me? Show me the tribute coin.” They brought him a denarius. “Whose image is this,” he said to them, “and whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they said to him. “Well then,” he said to them, “render to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and to God the things which are God’s.” When they heard this answer, they were amazed, and left him and went away.

Up to this point we have seen Jesus, as it were, on the attack. He had spoken three parables in which he had plainly indicted the orthodox Jewish leaders. In the parable of the two sons (Matt. 21:28-32) the Jewish leaders appear under the guise of the unsatisfactory son who did not do his father’s will. In the parable of the wicked husbandmen (Matt. 21:33-46) they are the wicked husbandmen. In the parable of the king’s feast (Matt. 22:1-14) they are the condemned guests.

Now we see the Jewish leaders launching their counterattack; and they do so by directing at Jesus carefully formulated questions. They ask these questions in public, while the crowd look on and listen, and their aim is to make Jesus discredit himself by his own words in the presence of the people. Here, then, we have the question of the Pharisees, and it was subtly framed. Palestine was an occupied country and the Jews were subject to the Roman Empire; and the question was: “Is it, or is it not, lawful to pay tribute to Rome?”

There were, in fact, three regular taxes which the Roman government exacted. There was a ground tax; a man must pay to the government one tenth of the grain, and one fifth of the oil and wine which he produced; this tax was paid partly in kind, and partly in a money equivalent. There was income tax, which was one per cent of a man’s income. There was a poll tax; this tax had to be paid by every male person from the age of fourteen to the age of sixty-five, and by every female person from the age of twelve to sixty-five; it amounted to one denarius (GSN1220)–that is what Jesus called the tribute coin–and was the equivalent of about 4p, a sum which is to be evaluated in the awareness that 3p was the usual day’s wage for a working-man. The tax in question here is the poll tax.

The question which the Pharisees asked set Jesus a very real dilemma. If he said that it was unlawful to pay the tax, they would promptly report him to the Roman government officials as a seditious person and his arrest would certainly follow. If he said that it was lawful to pay the tax, he would stand discredited in the eyes of many of the people. Not only did the people resent the tax as everyone resents taxation; they resented it even more for religious reasons. To a Jew God was the only king; their nation was a theocracy; to pay tax to an earthly king was to admit the validity of his kingship and thereby to insult God. Therefore the more fanatical of the Jews insisted that any tax paid to a foreign king was necessarily wrong. Whichever way Jesus might answer–so his questioners thought-he would lay himself open to trouble.

The seriousness of this attack is shown by the fact that the Pharisees and the Herodians combined to make it, for normally these two parties were in bitter opposition. The Pharisees were the supremely orthodox, who resented the payment of the tax to a foreign king as an infringement of the divine right of God. The Herodians were the party of Herod, king of Galilee, who owed his power to the Romans and who worked hand in glove with them. The Pharisees and the Herodians were strange bed-fellows indeed; their differences were for the moment forgotten in a common hatred of Jesus and a common desire to eliminate him. Any man who insists on his own way, no matter what it is, will hate Jesus.

This question of tax-paying was not of merely historical interest. Matthew was writing between A.D. 80 and 90. The Temple had been destroyed in A.D. 70. So long as it stood, every Jew had been bound to pay the half-shekel Temple tax. After the destruction of the Temple, the Roman government demanded that that tax should be paid to the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome. It is obvious how bitter a regulation that was for a Jew to stomach. The matter of taxes was a real problem in the actual ministry of Jesus; and it was still a real problem in the days of the early Church.

But Jesus was wise. He asked to see a denarius, which was stamped with the Emperor’s head. In the ancient days coinage was the sign of kingship. As soon as a king came to the throne he struck his own coinage; even a pretender would produce a coinage to show the reality of his kingship; and that coinage was held to be the property of the king whose image it bore. Jesus asked whose image was on the coin. The answer was that Caesar’s head was on it. “Well then,” said Jesus, “give it back to Caesar; it is his. Give to Caesar what belongs to him; and give to God what belongs to him.”

With his unique wisdom Jesus never laid down rules and regulations; that is why his teaching is timeless and never goes out of date. He always lays down principles. Here he lays down a very great and very important one.

Every Christian man has a double citizenship. He is a citizen of the country in which he happens to live. To it he owes many things. He owes the safety against lawless men which only settled government can give; he owes all public services. To take a simple example, few men are wealthy enough to have a lighting system or a cleansing system or a water system of their own. These are public services. In a welfare state the citizen owes still more to the state–education, medical services, provision for unemployment and old age. This places him under a debt of obligation. Because the Christian is a man of honour, he must be a responsible citizen; failure in good citizenship is also failure in Christian duty. Untold troubles can descend upon a country or an industry when Christians refuse to take their part in the administration and leave it to selfish, self-seeking, partisan, and unchristian men. The Christian has a duty to Caesar in return for the privileges which the rule of Caesar brings to him.

But the Christian is also a citizen of heaven. There are matters of religion and of principle in which the responsibility of the Christian is to God. It may well be that the two citizenships will never clash; they do not need to. But when the Christian is convinced that it is God’s will that something should be done, it must be done; or, if he is convinced that something is against the will of God, he must resist it and take no part in it. Where the boundaries between the two duties lie, Jesus does not say. That is for a man’s own conscience to test. But a real Christian–and this is the permanent truth which Jesus here lays down–is at one and the same time a good citizen of his country and a good citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven. He will fail in his duty neither to God nor to man. He will, as Peter said, “Fear God. Honour the emperor” (1Pet.2:17).

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW (Chapters 11-28)

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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