Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. (Matthew 22:15-21 – NRSV)
The Pharisees are referred to by Matthew more than thirty times. One scholar writes: “In Matthew the villains are usually Pharisees because only they survived the debacle of AD70 in sufficient strength to make trouble for Matthew’s church (in Mark they are the Scribes)” Benedict T Viviano OP, “The Gospel According to Matthew” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E Brown et al, Geoffrey Chapman, 1968, 654.)
Sometime the Pharisees join forces with the scribes, sometimes the Sadducees, always it is in some kind of contested or conflicted context that we encounter the Pharisees in Matthew’s Gospel. They appear first of all in a confrontation with John the Baptist – see 3:7. Next we hear Jesus refer to them in the Sermon on the Mount: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20). And so on throughout the Gospel.
Today’s Gospel is one of those typical occasions in which Jesus comes into conflict with the Pharisees.
Daniel Harrington Writes: “In the remainder of chapter 22 Matthew rejoins Mark 12:13–37 for four more controversies: taxes to Caesar (22:15–22), resurrection (22:23–33), the greatest commandment (22:34–40), and David’s son (22:41–46). They complete the series begun with the question about John’s authority (21:23–27), and interrupted by three parables (21:28–22:14). While following Mark 12:13–17 in the essential wording and story-line, Matthew has sharpened the opposition between Jesus and the Pharisees. The effort to trap Jesus is initiated by the Pharisees (22:15), who send some of their disciples along with the Herodians to question Jesus. Their guile and ill will toward Jesus is heightened by having Jesus know their “malice” and address them as “hypocrites.” When they find themselves bested in the debate, they slink away (22:22b). (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 310.)
they sent their disciples: The Pharisees do not go themselves. They employ a different strategy, perhaps hoping to catch Jesus off guard.
Herodians: Nothing is known of this group. Luke does not mention them. Mark does mention them in in Mark 3:6 and 12:13.
we know that you are sincere: A little compliment might help make Jesus vulnerable to the trick question. Leon Morris writes: “The statement means that Jesus has truth in his very being; he can be relied upon to say what is right, and he will not bend his statement to fit it in with what other people would like to hear. Not only is he ‘true’ in himself, but, they say, ‘you teach the way of God in truth’. They recognize that Jesus is a reliable teacher when he speaks about the things of God: not only does he speak the truth as he knows it (and from the Pharisaic point of view that might be very imperfectly), but what he says about the way of God is true, an interesting concession from those who opposed him. They go on to say that he does not care about anyone. This does not mean that he is inconsiderate, but that he is no time server: he tells the truth regardless of what people think and regardless of whether what he says pleases them or not. He is no respecter of persons. The tempters thus manage to say four things about Jesus in short compass: he was sincere, faithful to the truth, fearless, and no respecter of persons.” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1992, 555.)
Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?: This is hardly a question about whether there are tax laws on the books. It is more a question about where Jesus stands in regard to the oppressing Romans. In other words, is he faithful to the Covenant? Leon Morris writes: “Since some Jews held that the law of God forbade the payment of taxes to Gentiles (cf. Deut. 17:15), the questioners may have been sounding Jesus out on his attitude to that question. But this may give the wrong nuance, for the verb does not have in itself the significance of ‘lawful’. The question may refer to what is proper rather than what is lawful. The questioners proceed to ask whether they should give poll tax to Caesar. Their verb is not without its interest; they themselves are not allowing the possibility that the money was really due to Caesar. Anyone who paid this tax was in their view ‘giving’ money away, not paying a legitimate impost. Nobody likes paying taxes, but in the first century poll tax was especially unpopular. Customs duties were disliked, but at least on paying them one got something, the right to take goods to their destination. But with the poll tax there was no such benefit. It was a tax that simply removed money from the citizen and transferred it to the emperor’s coffers with no benefit to the citizen. And if it were retorted that it paid the expenses of government, the answer would surely be that no Jew wanted Roman government and every Jew would be happy to dispense with it. In this situation it would have seemed to the questioners that Jesus could not win. The question is framed in such a way that the answer is expected to be ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. If Jesus said ‘Yes’, presumably the Herodians would agree, but he would alienate many religious Jews who saw support for the Romans as intolerable. If he said ‘No’, he would satisfy the Pharisees, but be in trouble with the Roman authorities. Either way the situation in which he was growing in popularity among the populace and was left unhindered by the Romans would be changed, to their way of thinking, for the better.” (Leon Morris, op cit, 556-557.)
their malice: In Matthew 6:13, when Jesus is teaching the disciples how to pray, he urges them to say, “deliver us from evil”. The Greek word, here translated as “evil”, sometimes as “the evil one”, is ponērou. In today’s Gospel, the Greek word translated as “malice” is ponērian. These words share their roots. Jesus does not spare these disciples of the Pharisees – they are as guilty as the people who sent them to trap him.
hypoctites: The Greek word is hypokritai and it literally refers to those who act on the stage. Matthew uses the word thirteen times – see especially 23:13-29. Matthew always uses the word in a pejorative way, implying a person who is pretending to be what they a not. That is the common usage to this day. The questioners “are not genuinely seeking an opinion from Jesus; they speak flattering words to him and proceed to ask a question aimed at destroying him. That is not the action of honest men but of hypocrites.” (Leon Morris, op cit, 557.)
Give therefore to the emperor etc: John Calvin summed it up nicely: “No man should think he is giving less service to the one God when he obeys human laws, pays tax, or bows his head to accept any other burden.” (John Calvin, A Harmony of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, III, (Grand Rapids, 1980 rpt.) 26).” Jesus’ answer seems so obvious to us now. We are used to separation of Church and State. But there are cultures even today that are not structured that way. Islamic cultures typically tend not to accept such a separation.
Matthew tells us that both John the Baptist and Jesus began their preaching by proclaiming the kingdom – see Matthew 3:1 and 4:17. Matthew then tells us that Jesus, in the first days of his public ministry, went through the small towns of Galilee announcing the good news of the kingdom – see Matthew 4:23 and 9:35. The kingdom spells the end of the evil one: “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out evil spirits then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Matthew 12:28). Jesus urges his listeners to make a decision for the kingdom – repentance (metanoia) – see Matthew 4:17. The disciples are sent out to proclaim the kingdom – see Matthew 10:7.
Matthew’s Gospel is about the coming of the kingdom! We should pray like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9-10).
The kingdom defies easy definition. Yet “mere children” get it, the “learned and the clever” do not – see Matthew 11:25. Oddly enough, the religious authorities – the very ones who should be open to the kingdom and be its first and most effective proclaimers – are its staunchest enemies – see Matthew 23:13-32.
Today’s Gospel is one of a number in which Matthew tells us of this ongoing opposition of the Pharisees to Jesus and his message of the kingdom. The Pharisees and their disciples are caught up in the minutiae of right teaching and right behaviour. And they are very good at it! But Jesus will not buy into that: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus politely but definitely dismisses their trick question that was designed to embarrass him. The kingdom of God is coming to birth in the kingdom of the emperor. It will eventually replace that kingdom.
A new “world” is coming into being. Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, a new way of being is possible. Through him, with him and in him, it is possible for love to triumph over hatred, forgiveness over resentment, truth over the lie, goodness over evil. In the end there will be no need for taxes to the emperor.
Are the points of doctrine and law raised by the disciples of the Pharisees important? Yes they are. Indeed we must do our best to think through such matters carefully and honestly. The same applies to everything in our religion and everything in the Church. But they only make sense in the light of the kingdom. In other words, everything is ultimately about Jesus and the new way of being he is making possible. “Your kingdom come!”
Put most simply, the kingdom is the way God wants things. That is what we pray for each time we say the Our Father, isn’t it?