The passage set in the lectionary today (Matthew 22:15-22) has long been used as the ‘proof text’ for why religion and politics should always be separate. But was this really what Jesus was saying? We think that a careful examination of the text casts doubt on this view, especially when the passage is read in the context of the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew has a lot to say about the kingdom of heaven, and this perhaps is what best defines the Matthean Jesus’ understanding of what needs to be given to God. And Matthew 24 and 25 suggest that in Matthew’s view at least, the kingdoms of God and Caesar are bound to collide in various ways.
We thought that this passage was best explored by another imaginative journey back in time. So we are travelling to the first century, to the time when Jesus spent time wandering around Palestine, delivering his message of the good news to people who lived in the rural areas. We also know from the gospels that like any faithful Jew of the time, Jesus spent time in the Temple. This passage (Matthew 22:15-22) tells of one of those times.
Jesus has been debating with Pharisees and other Jewish leaders in one of the courts of the Jerusalem Temple. In our imaginative story, the debate has been overheard by Boaz and Miriam, who have been lurking nearby in one of the other courts of the Temple – probably the Gentile or the Women’s court. They are attempting to make sense of the Pharisees’ question, and Jesus’ reply to it.
Boaz: Miriam! Were you listening to the debate this morning? The Galilean preacher, Jesus, was having a most interesting discussion with some of the Pharisees.
Miriam: Yes, Boaz, I did hear much of the debate you speak of. I am of the opinion that the Pharisees and Herodians were trying to trap Jesus – you know, make him say something treasonous or blasphemous.
Boaz: (doubtfully) Are you sure they were Herodians and Pharisees? The Pharisees do not like the Herodians nor do they mix with them. The Herodians are too close to the Temple priests.
Miriam: Perhaps the Herodians were just hanging around then to listen in to the debate. It had to be the Pharisees doing the actual debating, as it followed the customary Jewish pattern for such arguments.
Boaz: Yes, I think you are right. But you mentioned a trap. What do you mean by that?
Miriam: Well, just think about it. Jesus was in the Temple, teaching his Galilean followers and other admirers of his teaching, all gathered around him. And the Pharisees asked about paying taxes to the Emperor. I am sure they expected Jesus, as a radical Jew, to say NO! Do not pay those heathen Romans.
Boaz: I see. You are saying that this question was designed to put Jesus in a bind. If he answered "Yes," that would surely alienate his followers, many of whom would consider him to be the Messiah, and thus the one who would deliver them from Roman rule.
Miriam: That’s right. And if he said "No," he could be arrested for treason by the nearby soldiers, who always seem to be hanging around the Temple looking for someone to arrest.
Boaz: And if he tried to side step the question or talk around the issue he would be seen as less than authoritative.
Miriam: I must confess I thought that the Pharisees had him. You know, it seemed to me that there was no answer to this question that would be acceptable to everyone listening.
Boaz: Ah, but as you said, there was a good answer. Wasn’t there? I confess I gasped in admiration at Jesus’ answer. What cleverness and cunning he showed!
Miriam: Yes, to answer with the question he did was commendable and clever. Especially since in my opinion, they were piling all that flattery on top of him to lull him into a false sense of security. You know, ‘Teacher, you are so sincere and so dedicated to teaching the way of God! You are truthful and have no partiality for anyone!’ A lesser man would have fallen into the trap and answered in a way that would condemn him, either in the eyes of his followers or in the eyes of the Roman soldiers.
Boaz: Yes, it was a great question. It showed that he was on to their little plan. "Why are you testing me?” he shouts. “Show me the coin for the tax, you hypocrites!"
Miriam: You know, I thought this was the cleverest thing Jesus did. This was the Temple! We all know that no Roman coinage is allowed in the temple, not ever. Such coins are meant to be confined to the court of the Gentiles, where the moneychangers are.
Boaz: Indeed, you are right Miriam. The Pharisees are very much in favour of this policy, and have been very public about it. I couldn’t believe it when someone got a denarius out of his bag, right there, in the middle of the temple.
Miriam: I don’t believe a Pharisee would have done such a thing. I bet it was one of the Herodians.
Boaz: Well, they are only half-Jewish. I wouldn’t put it past them to have sneaked some Roman money in. I wish I could have seen the faces of the Pharisees. They must have been horrified when someone whipped out that coin!
Miriam: Yes, indeed. The minute that happened it was all over for the Herodians and Pharisees. That action would have really discredited them in the eyes of the people gathered there.’ Yes’, they would have been thinking. You lot really are hypocrites’.
Boaz: And rightly so. Fancy carrying an image into the Temple – even if it was only on a coin. An image is an image.
Miriam: That’s why Jesus goes on to press his advantage, I am sure. But Jesus goes further. "Whose image is this and what is his?" he says.
Boaz: "You shall not make for yourself an image". The commandments are very clear on this in the scroll of Exodus. Yet here they are, with a coin that is forbidden in the temple, and on it is an image.
Miriam: Well, I thought Jesus had won the argument at this point. An image in the temple, of all places. I confess I was surprised that he pressed on with the debate.
Boaz: Well, the response they made demanded an answer, I thought. Whose image is it? Those Herodians and Pharisees have to admit is Caesar's. The Roman Caesar, who demands to be worshiped as a god.
Miriam: Now you see what I meant by a trap? They well and truly fell into this trap set by Jesus. I was inwardly cheering, I admit. Jesus has trapped them, not the other way around. Surely at this point they wished for God to open the ground and swallow them. It reminded me of one the psalms: "May the traps they set for me spring on them!" (Psalm 57:7).
Boaz: I quite agree. Jesus’ reply to them was stunning. "Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's. Give to God the things that are God's." What a response! Such teaching! These words must have rubbed salt into the wounds of the Herodians and the Pharisees. Did you hear the laughter, and the mockery that came from the crowd? They loved seeing those proud men humbled by Jesus.
Miriam: (hesitates) While I thought Jesus was very clever in turning the tables on the Pharisees and Herodians, what exactly do you think he meant? How do we tell what is God’s and what is Caesar’s? Does he mean not have anything to do with the Roman Empire?
Boaz: I didn’t understand it like that, Miriam. I am sure that Jesus was not saying that civil and religious authority are in opposition and have nothing to say to each other. You know from our own scriptures that God can and does use the authority of other nations for the divine purposes of salvation. Don’t you remember that in the scroll of Isaiah King Cyrus, the pagan Persian king, is described as a messiah? And that God says there that he uses any instrument he chooses to bring about change, including a pagan king? God expects us to to respond appropriately in both secular and religious matters.
Miriam: Now let me think here, Boaz. When Jesus says “give to God the things that are God’s,” he can’t possibly be endorsing the distinction you are making. Isn’t everything God’s? Jesus is talking about coins and taxes, but really he is talking about pledging allegiance to God’s kingdom – and even Caesar’s empire is part of that, surely.
Boaz: Are you suggesting then, that the two empires – God and Caesar’s – are somehow mixed up – and we should pledge allegiance to Caesar? That can’t be right!
Miriam: No, I don’t mean it like that. My understanding is that everyone bears God’s image – it says so in Genesis. We are all God’s children, in a way, you must agree.
Boaz: Well, yes, I suppose we are. Even the Romans. So how do you interpret this saying?
Miriam: Think about what you said a minute ago about God using even a pagan king as a messiah. In other words, God can and does use secular authorities for divine purposes of salvation.
Boaz: So Jesus is saying that we are to respond appropriately in both civil and religious matters, but that they should be kept separate.
Miriam: No! Boaz, sometimes you can be incredibly dense! That is not what Jesus is saying. Think about all the kingdom of God stuff that Jesus has taught. Remember how he said that he had come to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, give the good news to the poor and to proclaim the year of the LORD's favour? And that the rich rulers would be pulled down from their thrones? And that we are to strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness and justice? How could you do any of these things unless you got mixed up in the secular empire?
Boaz: I did hear that Jesus gave a speech to the Pharisees, where he described justice, mercy and faith as the matters of the law needing their attention, not the tithing of herbs. Is this what you mean?
Miriam: Yes. If Jesus was saying that the two should be kept separate, then he would have supported the tithing and ignored those broad justice issues. Jesus says that God looks to grant justice to those who cry out to him. He says that God who warns against oppressing the poor (James 2 & 5), and exhorts all to care for the orphans and widows (James 1:27). This is also what the prophets write.
Boaz: So to work for the kingdom means to challenge injustice where we see it, and to work to make things better for the poor. I begin to understand what you mean. You can’t make things better unless you change the way the empire works.
Miriam: That’s right. Jesus also says we should love our neighbour as ourselves. This must mean we expect them to be treated as equals, and that we should not do anything to harm them. Remember the prophet Micah? He says and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Boaz: So we are to live in the way Jesus sets out by loving God, loving neighbour, and striving for justice to be done, especially to the poor and oppressed. This is what we give to God.
Miriam: Yes. But Jesus also requires us to hold the Empire and the rich to account, and to work for fair standards of law and justice for all people. This is what is Caesar’s, though as you can see, the two are mixed together. Our faith means we should champion those who are marginalised, oppressed or vulnerable in our society. To this, it means we have to enter the realm of Caesar.
Boaz: Well, Miriam, it is time I was getting back to my household. I have enjoyed our conversation. But I think today I will have the last word, and quote form the scroll of Jeremiah. He was speaking of King Josiah when he said: He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the LORD.
Who or what speaks to us authoritatively today? What do we see today as belonging to Caesar and to God?
In a thoughtful exploration of this passage, Father John Kavanaugh, S. J. of Saint Louis University, asks some pertinent questions:
What are we asked today to give to the empire? Is it our faith and moral practice? Our hopes and dreams? Our consciences? Our labour? Our children? And if we offer such sacrifices upon the altar of Caesar, have we betrayed the [things] that are most intimately ours and God’s?
I am grateful to Father John Kavanaugh for a number of the ideas that follow. I have paraphrased some of his material and added in my own. Father Kavanaugh’s original essay can be found at http://liturgy.slu.edu/29OrdA101611/theword_embodied.html
More than ever, in our own times, we live in conflict with these the two “kingdoms” of God and Caesar’s. If we are faithful disciples of Jesus, our religious values must be in conflict with a lot of civil policy.
It is hard to escape the political implications of the story of Jesus and Caesar’s coin. In Jesus’ time, the gospel confrontation described here most likely represented a struggle between the party of Herod, loyal to Rome, and the Zealots, who refused to pay tribute or taxes to the Empire. Jesus here is refusing to support either the anti-empire Zealot party line, or that of the pro-empire Herodians. He instead opts for a faith perspective that overarches both, without committing to any “party line”.
For us today, the “empire” can represent a number of entities. It can come in the form of different governments, all vying for our hearts and minds by appealing to our baser selves by offering us more money, less taxes, border security and tougher laws to punish the poor and marginalised of our country.
It can come in the form of those palaces of materialistic greed, the shopping mall, palaces run by enormous corporations. Here we are told we are “worth it”, and are tempted by every type of good imaginable. This empire appeals to our greed, our yearning for possessions, our need to keep up with others, and a sense of insecurity that calls us to buy the latest fashions and products that will eliminate all germs from our lives.
None of these empires appeal particularly to our generosity of spirit, our self-discipline, a spirit of sacrifice, or fairer system for our neighbours, either at home or abroad. We tend instead to prescribe self- discipline and sacrifice to the poor, and those least able to afford it. When we purchase goods in our shopping malls and other palaces of materialism, we will not think of those poor in other countries who created the goods, even if those creating them were children, were overworked, were underpaid, or even enslaved.
So what does the LORD require? According to Matthew and the prophets, the Lord requires a life of love and justice, a life that daily, in practical ways, requires we give time, and thought to how our purchases, our way of life and political systems affect those who are our neighbours in other parts of the world. It means that through our combined voices, our thinking, how we live both at home and in our community, our cities and our world, we will try and minimize the harm we potentially do to our neighbours.
So perhaps Jesus is raising some new questions for us through this passage. What can we do differently in our everyday life that will profoundly change the lives of our nearby and global neighbours? How do we challenge the structures that are created by the Empire that continue to oppress many people? And by what actions do we truly give to God, what is God’s?