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 commentator 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).
It is always in some kind of contested or conflicted context that we encounter the Pharisees in Matthew’s Gospel. Sometime the Pharisees join forces with the scribes, sometimes the Sadducees. 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. In this way Matthew alters Mark’s version: “Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said”.
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. 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.
hypocrites: 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. It implies pretending to be what you are 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.
A primary function of good humour is that it unveils truth – the deep and very significant truth that life is tragic and the truth also that there is compassion and mercy there for us.
Today’s Gospel – on tribute to Caesar (Matthew 22:15-21) offers some insights into the place of humour in a healthy life. Jesus is here in the presence of men who are cynical and even hate-filled. We can easily imagine them laughing if Jesus had allowed himself to be trapped and humiliated. This is not humour at work but malice. The intent and origins of this are cynicism and hate. There is no attempt to unveil any deeper truth of human existence. Jesus saw their “malice”. Is it possible that much of what is presented as humour in our culture is of this kind? In other words, it is actually not about humour at all. It is rather about tearing someone or something down?
Jesus does not need to hide. As his enemies said: “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”. Jesus unveils a simple hard fact of life to expose the malicious charade. These religious authorities are seen to be unwitting clowns! Now, it is possible that a supporter of Jesus might have taken a malicious delight in seeing the tables turned. However, it is also entirely possible that some – including ourselves – are drawn to smile at the absurdities and incongruities from which we all hide. If we allow the unveiling, we become aware of the healing truth that our lives are in fact embedded in fictions of control and illusions of an order that we have invented for ourselves. The humour can thus heal us.
Tragedy is an inevitable part of human existence. Humour helps us to face that truth. Cynicism and hatred can dominate us when we hide from this harsh truth. An alternative for the religious authorities would have been the way of Nicodemus – see John 3:1-21. They could have engaged Jesus in conversation rather than contestation.
I heard a stand-up comic describe humour as tragedy with timing. A modern author described it similarly: “The tragic is the inevitable. The comic is the unforeseeable” (Frederick Buechner, Telling the truth: The Gospel as tragedy comedy and fairytale, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1977, 57). How would you describe it? What does a moment of genuine humour have that a moment of mere mockery or sarcasm lacks?
Humour is a sign of faith, hope and charity. It is also a sign that we have grown up enough to avoid feeling compelled to put others down so that we might rise up. Let us pray for forgiveness for the times we refused humour. “When we fall, let us fall inwards. Let us fall freely and completely: that we may find our depth and humility: the solid earth from which we may rise up and love again. Amen” (Michael Leunig).
A video presentation of the Reflection may be found on YouTube via https://stpatschurchhill.org/