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 22:15-22 – NRSV)
1. Matthew is dependent on Mark for this story – see Mark 12:13–17. Luke has a similar account – see 20:20–26
2. “The Pharisees were an unofficial but powerful Jewish pressure group through most of the first centuries BC and AD. Largely lay-led, though including some priests, their aim was to purify Israel through intensified observance of the Jewish law (Torah), developing their own traditions about the precise meaning and application of scripture, their own patterns of prayer and other devotion, and their own calculations of the national hope. Though not all legal experts were Pharisees, most Pharisees were thus legal experts.
“They effected a democratization of Israel’s life, since for them the study and practice of Torah was equivalent to worshipping in the Temple—though they were adamant in pressing their own rules for the Temple liturgy on an unwilling (and often Sadducean) priesthood. This enabled them to survive AD 70 and, merging into the early Rabbinic movement, to develop new ways forward. Politically they stood up for ancestral traditions, and were at the forefront of various movements of revolt against both pagan overlordship and compromised Jewish leaders. By Jesus’ day there were two distinct schools, the stricter one of Shammai, more inclined towards armed revolt, and the more lenient one of Hillel, ready to live and let live.
“Jesus’ debates with the Pharisees are at least as much a matter of agenda and policy (Jesus strongly opposed their separatist nationalism) as about details of theology and piety. Saul of Tarsus was a fervent right-wing Pharisee, presumably a Shammaite, until his conversion.
“After the disastrous war of AD 66–70, these schools of Hillel and Shammai continued bitter debate on appropriate policy. Following the further disaster of AD 135 (the failed Bar-Kochba revolt against Rome) their traditions were carried on by the rabbis who, though looking to the earlier Pharisees for inspiration, developed a Torah-piety in which personal holiness and purity took the place of political agendas.” (N T Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 16-28, SPCK, 2004, 221.)
3. A context for this story is the Roman occupation and the demand for taxes the Romans placed on the occupied peoples everywhere. In that context, a “messiah” might be expected to show a willingness to throw off the Roman yoke and the taxes would be a good place to start. About twenty years earlier, a man by the name of Judas had led such a revolt. The Romans dealt mercilessly with such people, often crucifying them. One of the central struggles the reader detects in the Gospels is around the identity of Jesus as the Anointed One. Is he or isn’t he? Then, after the crucifixion, that struggle becomes one of finding in the Hebrew Scriptures evidence that would allow the first disciples to see the Messiah as the “Suffering Servant” described by the prophet Isaiah.
4. Quite apart from the Roman coin as a tax, it was also a symbol of blasphemy. Written on the coin, with the image of the emperor, was the title, ‘Son of God’. Jesus is in effect asking a question calculated to provoke distaste when he says: “Whose head is this, and whose title?” Jesus also knew, as did everyone in earshot, that the Pharisees actually used that coin. I think it is fair to assume that Jesus enjoyed this little exchange, perhaps imagining what was going to happen when the ‘disciples’ reported back to the Pharisees. The plot to entrap Jesus turned into a trap for the plotters.
5. Since the purpose of this encounter with the disciples of the Pharisees is to entrap Jesus, it seems reasonable to assume that the opening complimentary words are insincere – flattery in other words. (Jesus himself sees it as ‘malice’ and calls them ‘hypocrites’.) One of the lovely ironies in the story then is that the flattery actually turns out to be true: “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.”
Jesus acknowledges the civil order and the responsibilities citizens have within and to that order. But he affirms the sovereignty of God. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Jesus is able to maintain this tension – something, it seems, that many of his contemporaries are incapable of – because he is grounded beyond the social and cultural situation in which he finds himself. Jesus is trans-cultural and trans-societal.
Does this mean that culture and societal do not matter to him? Far from it! They are essential parts of his being in the flesh. It does mean, however, that he finds his identity and his grounding beyond society and culture but in the Kingdom. This enables him to move freely within both and critique them as required. Every prophet must be trans-cultural and trans-societal in this sense. Only from that standpoint of freedom can one be transformative for the culture and the society.
Perhaps this also tells us why Jesus is constantly in conflict with the religious leaders. They cannot control him. He is deeply committed within the tradition but is not entrapped by it. He is able to speak unwelcome truths without losing his identity.
Is it possible to become so identified with ‘Church’ that one loses the capacity to be truly prophetic?