Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Paying Taxes to Caesar (the Gospel of Matthew)

Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's...
Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? (Matthew 22:15-17).

So, the Pharisees and Herodians are hoping to catch Jesus in a misstatement. They were already afraid of the reaction of the crowds if they should overtly come out against Jesus and imprison or murder him[1]. They figured that the only way to seize him would be for him to incriminate himself. Their question seems to be designed to put Jesus between a rock and a hard place. If he answers that they shouldn't pay taxes to Rome, he is a subversive to the Roman governor and subject to his punishment. If he advocates paying taxes, then the Pharisees can say that he is a traitor to his people and the people would then call for his head.

This is ironic as well, since the Herodians were dispised by the Pharisees for exactly the same thing for which they were hoping to frame Jesus – collaborating with the hated Romans. The Herodians were a priestly party under the reign of King Herod and his successors (Kohler). They were made up of members of Herod the Great’s family, and supported the Herodian rulers in their policies, as well as in the social customs which they introduced from Rome (Biblos). They encouraged the idea of a national kingdom under the rule of the Herodian dynasty (Biblos). They seem to have been more politically focused than the Pharisees, with whom they were frequently at odds, but they, along with the Sadducees, agreed that the Jews should submit to Roman rule, administrated through the throne of Herod (Kretzmann, 1921). Descendants of Herod ruled the region of Israel on behalf of the Romans for 163 years from 63 BC – 100 AD (Engelbrecht, 2009).

They set up their question with a bit of flattery, telling Jesus that, “…we know you are true and teach the way of God truthfully…” No one reading this account would believe for a minute that the person making that statement actually believes what he is saying. If he did, why did he not simply accept what Jesus was teaching, since he was teaching the way of God truthfully, rather than questioning him? Without any doubt the questioner intends this obsequiousness to cause Jesus to put down his guard, as if he were speaking with one of his own disciples. The funny thing is, earlier in Jesus’ ministry, one of the men of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus, came to Jesus by night and uttered almost this exact statement in sincerity:

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (John 3:1-2).

These men, who knew what God’s word said to look for, saw what Jesus did, and they knew what it meant. They saw him heal the sick, restore the sight of the blind, make the lame to walk, and they understood that these were signs that pointed to the coming Messiah[2]. Because, however, their understanding of the Messiah had shifted from the spiritual realm to the temporal, they rejected him when he arrived. Rather than embrace his coming the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians were more concerned with holding on to their political power and religious authority[3]. They had made a life and a career of earning their righteousness by their scrupulous keeping of their perversion of God’s law[4]. They would not sit still as someone, least of all an obscure carpenter from Nazareth, upset their apple cart with the proposition that righteousness comes through faith in the Christ[5]. Jesus, being the omnipotent Son of God, saw through their duplicity. Rather than assent to the faulty premise of their contrived question, Jesus uses the opportunity to illustrate the true relationship between temporal and spiritual things.

But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away (Matthew 22:18-22).

Nearly everyone has heard of Jesus' answer recorded in this passage, "Therefore render to Ceaser the things that are Ceaser's, and to God the things that are God's." What Jesus is telling us here is that, while our first allegiance is to God and his kingdom, he has instituted civil authority and we are bound to obey all legitimate civil authority[6]. Kretzmann has this to say on the subject:

God’s people should above all give to God due honor and obedience. In those things which concern the Word of God, worship itself, faith, and conscience, we are obedient to God only and pay no attention to objections made by men. But in mere temporal, earthly things, which concern money, possessions, body, life, we obey the government of the country in which we live…But what if they should want to take the Gospel from us, or prohibit its preaching? Then thou shalt say: The Gospel and the Word of God I will not give you, neither have ye any power concerning that; for your government is a temporal government over earthly goods, but the Gospel is a spiritual, heavenly possession; therefore your power does not extend over the Gospel and the Word of God (Kretzmann, 1921).
Indeed, Jesus says that things temporal have no jurisdiction over the Word, and the spiritual things the Word governs[7]. St. Paul echoes Jesus’ teaching on this proper separation of church and state when he writes:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek...For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (Romans 1:16-17; 1 Corinthians 1:18).

The King James Version conveys the message of this passage more clearly when it says, “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness…” The Gospel preaches righteousness and gives the spirit, and is completely foreign to those who do not believe. Without God’s intervention “them that perish” cannot, by their own reason or strength understand or believe the Gospel[8]. Jesus tells the Pharisees, and us, to keep our priorities straight. Do not raise man made rules, or governments and rulers – anything temporal – to a spiritual position where they usurp the place that rightfully belongs to God by his very nature; Do not bring God’s word, his Law and Gospel, down to the level of mere temporal regulations and traditions that are designed to elevate man to a false position of prominence and prestige, a hypocritical piety which one attains by how diligently he keeps his man-made law[9]. Jesus identifies the Pharisees as having done this very thing when he points out their spiritual blindness and hypocrisy:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life…Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (John 5:39-40; Mark 7:6-7).

May we be careful to always render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s.

Works Cited

Biblos. (n.d.). Retrieved October 18, 2011, from Easton's Bible Dictionary: Herodians: http://eastonsbibledictionary.com/herodians.htm

Engelbrecht, E. A. (Ed.). (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible. St. Louis, MO, USA: Concordia Publishing House.

Kohler, K. (n.d.). Herodians. Retrieved October 18, 2011, from JewishEncyclopedia.com: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=637&letter=HKretzmann

Kretzmann, P. E. (1921). Popular Commentary of the Bible (Vol. I). St. Louis, MO, USA: Concordia Publishing House.

End Notes

[1] Matthew 21:45-46
[2] Luke 7:22; Luke 4:16-21
[3] John 11:48-53; 18:13-14
[4] Matthew 23:1-36
[5] Acts 16:29-31; Ephesians 2:5-9; 2 Timothy 1:8-10
[6] Romans 13:1-8
[7] Matthew 16:18-19
[8] Romans 8:7
[9] Mark 7:1-23