The gospel reading for Trinity 19 in Year A is Matthew 22.15–22, the short exchange between Jesus and his opponents on the question of the Roman ‘poll’ tax. This has important theological implications for our understanding of issues of politics and power, though it is often misread.
We are now well embedded in Matthew’s triple grouping of three-fold incidents which started in Matthew 21:
|Matt 21.1–22||Three symbolic actions||The entry into Jerusalem on a donkey|
Overturning tables in the temple
The cursing of the fig tree
|Matt 21.28–22.14||Three polemical parables||The parable of the two sons|
The parable of the wicked tenants
The parable of the wedding banquet
|Matt 22.15–40||Three hostile questions||The question about poll tax|
The question about marriage at the resurrection
The question about the greatest commandment
Unfortunately, we will not get to complete this sequence, as the lectionary breaks away from continuous reading in the coming weeks leading into Advent for the new liturgical year—and so avoids the challenging series of ‘woes’ against the Pharisees. The three synoptic gospels agree on the order of material here, with this question following the parabolic teaching (in Mark and Luke, the parable of the wicked tenants only), and being followed by the other two questions.
Matthew and Mark agree in identifying the Pharisees and Herodians as those who challenge Jesus here. Mark implies, and Matthew makes explicit, that it is the ‘disciples’ of the Pharisees, rather than the leaders themselves, who are involved here; the leaders will step up for the third challenge to Jesus in Matt 22.34. All through this section (as we have seen) Matthew has been careful to specify the identity and the variety of Jesus’ opponents, who include ‘the chief priests and the scribes’ (Matt 21.15), ‘the chief priests and the Pharisees’ (Matt 21.45), here ‘the Pharisees with the Herodians’, ‘the Sadducees’ (Matt 22.23) and again ‘the Pharisees’ (Matt 22.34). In chapter 23, the subject of Jesus’ challenge is ‘the scribes and the Pharisees’. These descriptions give a sense of both the broad opposition to Jesus, and the variety of specific groups involved.
The Pharisees were a broad, mostly lay, movement, concerned with Mosaic purity in the whole of life, and were often in conflict with the more elitist Sadducees, who were concerned with their authority as a priestly group with power deriving from their role in temple worship. In contrast to the Sadducees, the Pharisees were opposed to cultural and political compromise with the occupying powers, so it is rather surprising to see them allied with the Herodians; there is some debate about exactly what this term refers to, but it is most likely pointing to courtiers of Herod Antipas, who was Tetrarch (ruler) of the two disconnected territories of Galilee to the north and Perea to the east. These two groups must have had very different interests in both the question itself and the desire to trip Jesus up—but we saw them plotting together at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Mark 3.6.
Their aim is to ‘entrap’ or ‘entangle’ him in his own words; the word used pagideuo only occurs here in the NT, and is a term from hunting used to describe an animal that is trapped (see Eccl 9.12). It is used in relation to an unwise commitment in Prov 6.2, but also of the spiritual dangers of idolatry in Deut 7.25. Jesus’ opponents here are not merely wanting him to look foolish or contradictory, but to set a trap that will incriminate him.
The opening comments by these disciples has the ironic ring of empty flattery—but in fact they correlate very well with what we have seen of Jesus’ ministry and action in the gospels. He is a fearless speaker of truth, and does not trim his message to make it convenient for his hearers even if they are people of influence and power. To say that ‘you are true’ is not very far from Jesus claiming ‘I am…the truth’ (John 14.6) and there is no ‘shadow of turning’ with him, where he says one thing in one situation and something different in another (James 1.17).
The next phrase of flattery, ‘you do not care about anyone’s opinion’, or ‘you do not court their opinion’ or ‘you aren’t swayed by others’ renders the simple idiom ‘no-one is a concern to you’—clearly not in the sense of being unconcerned for the welfare of others, but in not being concerned to impress or flatter them—precisely the thing that the opponents here are trying to do! The final flattery might be taken as ‘you are not swayed by appearances’, since the phrase is simply ‘you do not look on a person’s face’. This idea has deep roots in the OT; when Samuel is discerning who will be the next king of Israel, God instructs him not to be impressed by outward appearances.
The LORD does not look at the things human beings look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart (1 Sam 16.7).
(There is even a snappy chorus based on this verse: ‘Man looks on the outside, but God looks…[clap, clap] on the heart.’) The metaphor here in the Hebrew Bible is ‘people look at the eyes’, but in the Greek LXX it has become ‘people look on the face’. This is very close to the root metaphor of one of my favourite words in the NT, prosopolempsia, and the related phrase lambano prosopon, literally meaning ‘to take the face’, but used with reference to partially—making a judgement on rank or outward appearance, or showing favouritism. It is a central aspect of God’s nature that he does not show favouritism, and this is key not just ethically but in turning the grace of God outward beyond ethnic Jews to include the Gentile mission (see Acts 10.34, Rom 2.11 and James 2.1, 9). The deceitful flatterers ironically attribute this key characteristic to Jesus and make it the basis of their appeal for a judgement on the poll tax.
The question of the Roman poll tax was not one of mere political opinion or inconvenience, but central to contemporary Jewish ideas about the kingdom of God, their liberation, and attitudes to the Roman occupation. The tax was imposed as a result of direct Roman rule of Judea in AD 6—but of course not in Galilee which continued to be ruled by Herod Antipas. It was fiercely resented by patriotic Jews, and gave rise to a rebellion led by Judas the Galilean aided by Zadok/Sadduc the Pharisee, which later inspired the zealot revolt of AD 66 which in turn led to the destruction of the temple at the end of this first Jewish War in AD 70. Josephus comments:
The Jews, although at the beginning they took the report of a taxation heinously, yet did they leave off any further opposition to it, by the persuasion of Joazar, who was the son of Beethus, and high priest; so they, being over-persuaded by Joazar’s words, gave an account of their estates, without any dispute about it. Yet was there one Judas, a Gaulonite, of a city whose name was Gamala, who, taking with him Sadduc, a Pharisee, became zealous to draw them to a revolt, who both said that this taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery, and exhorted the nation to assert their liberty; as if they could procure them happiness and security for what they possessed, and an assured enjoyment of a still greater good, which was that of the honor and glory they would thereby acquire for magnanimity. They also said that God would not otherwise be assisting to them.. (Antiquities, Book 18.1.1)
Thus we see a theological concern for moral and spiritual purity working hand in hand with a political concern for national autonomy. The two issues of ‘rendering unto God’ and ‘rendering unto Caesar’ are considered to be both overlapping and in conflict, so that you cannot do the one without refusing to do the other, and vice versa.
So Jesus’ opponents, with this background assumption, lead him into an impossible choice. If he supports the paying of the tax, then he will be seen to compromise in his devotion to God, and lose the support of those who long for political freedom, which we can see expressed in both spiritual and theological terms as the hope of the coming messiah in the Benedictus:
…to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days… (Luke 1.74–75)
But if he supports the withholding of the tax, here at the centre of power in Jerusalem, he will look like a seditious rebel, and appear to make his claim as a rival leader to the power of Rome—the kind of claim on which he is in fact unjustly convicted.
Jesus’ response to the question both exposes the cunning and hypocrisy of his opponents, and undermines the basic theological premise of the dilemma that they have presented him with.
Jesus is fully aware of their ‘malice’; on such an important issue, they are more interested in scoring political and theological points than really resolving the question. He accuses them of ‘testing’ or ‘tempting’ him, using the term peirazo, which describes the activity of Satan in the wilderness at the start of Jesus’ ministry. The testing has never really stopped, even if the players have changed.
He then highlights their ‘hypocrisy’. The denarius was a comparatively large-value coin, being worth a day’s wages for a worker (as we saw in the previous parables), but the actual coin need not have been used for payment. A denarius in the time of the emperor Tiberius would have the image of the emperor, in itself a serious offence to observant Jews, but also the inscription ‘Ti[berius] Caesar Divi Aug[usti] F[ilius] Augustus’ and on the reverse the title ‘Pontif[ex] Maxim[us]’, meaning High Priest.
He is thus proclaimed to be not only the son of the divine Augustus, but also a high priest; the two titles together could hardly be more calculated to offend Jewish piety (R T France, NICNT, p 833).
And yet Jesus’ opponents have one in their pocket and are carrying it around! Those who appear to be most concerned about ritual purity and political independence are carrying with them the very signs of spiritual compromise and political collusion!
Much is often made in preaching that the coin has the image (eikon) of the emperor on it, and that all humans are made in the image (eikon) of God, so that there is an analogy between the handing over of the coin in payment of the tax, and the handing over of ourselves in obedience to the call of God. But in fact within this narrative that parallel is not drawn on or emphasised at all, so it is not clear that this is the primary issue.
More important is Jesus’ emphasis, obscured in the traditional translation of ‘render unto Caesar,’ on paying back. If the coin has the emperor’s head on it, then there is a sense in which paying the tax is indeed giving back what belongs to the emperor, and there is a pointer here to the basic principle of (fair) taxation, that tax covers the costs of what governments spend for the benefit of the population at large. Cue a showing of the Monty Python sketch ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ linked below…
More fundamentally, Jesus is redrawing the theological relationship between political power and the actions of God’s kingdom. The Pharisees, along with other Jewish groups, see the spiritual and the political inseparably intertwined, so that God’s kingdom cannot be realised without the accompanying political ‘regime change’. The spheres of God’s action and political reality mostly overlap, and are rival regimes making competing claims for loyalty (see the diagram on the right).
Yet this is something that Jesus has rejected from the very beginning of his ministry. Despite the political implications of his proclamation of the kingdom of God, he has refused to pursue a political path to its realisation, and has specifically rejected the political ambitions of those who would make him king (for example, in response to the feeding of the 5,000, John 6.15). The kingdom of God has political implications, but these can never be achieved by merely political means. This is not just a conviction of Jesus; the history of the OT testifies to its reality. It is a change of heart, not merely a change of regime, that the people need.
But much interpretation of Jesus’ saying has separated the two spheres of the authority of God and the authority of the emperor—or successive political powers that have taken his place. We render unto Caesar what is his due (for example in paying taxes), and quite separately we render unto God what is his due (for example in pious devotion and church attendance). In this reading, what God requires of us and what Caesar requires of us are quite separate, so that our political, economic and social lives are separate from our religious lives. This has been a distinctive approach of post-Enlightenment modernity, where the religious becomes an interest or a hobby, or even a set of important and motivating personal convictions—but it can never make claims over the political realm. It is private rather than public truth.
Yet Jesus clearly believes that ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’ (Ps 24.1). Whatever power the emperor or any other ruler has, they have it only because it has been delegated to them by God, as Jesus says explicitly to Pilate during the trial narrative in the Fourth Gospel (John 19.11).
Thus the sphere of influence and power of Caesar doesn’t sit so much as a complete system as a rival to the power of God, nor does it sit as an alternative sphere of activity an authority separate from the concerns of the kingdom. Instead it rightly sits within the concerns of God and his authority. This means that there is no one political system or ideology which has a monopoly on kingdom realities (as in the first approach)—but neither is any regime free from scrutiny.
We should treat political and economic systems with due respect (Romans 13), acknowledging the source of all true authority, and recognising the purposes of good government under the authority of God. But we also need to be alert to the moments, in all political systems, where Caesar claims more power than is his due, and seeks to displace the kingdom and take the role of God in the offer he makes or the loyalty he demands. Whilst we render to Caesar what is his legitimate due, that must also sit in accountability to our higher duty to render to God what is his due.
It is this theological understanding of political power which will allow the followers of Jesus to seek first the kingdom of God, without needing to see that expressed in a specific political state in a geographical territory, and mean that they are able to bring the dynamic of the kingdom to every tribe, language, people and nation.
And now for that Monty Python sketch…