Matthew 22:15-22
[Give] What's God's To God

Authored By Rev. Takao Kiyohiro, Tokyo, Japan

1.  The text says in chapter twenty-one and verse twenty-three "when Jesus went into the temple grounds and taught."  Also, it has in chapter twenty-four and verse one that "when Jesus left the temple grounds."  This is the large framework in which the passage we read today is placed.  The scene is the temple.

2.  In this connection, chapter twenty-four and verse one continues like this:  "The disciples approached him and pointed Jesus to the temple buildings."  Then, a long story begins in that place.  This continues till after chapter twenty-five.  And in chapter twenty-six and verse one it reads like this:  "When Jesus finished saying all these words, he said to the disciples, 'As you know, in two days is the Passover festival.  The son of man will be handed over to be crucified.'  About that time, the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled at the mansion of the high priest named Caiaphas and devising a plan they discussed arresting and killing Jesus.  But they said, 'Lest a commotion occur among the public, let's put it off during the festival,'" (26:1-5).  The hatred and the desire to kill among the Jewish leaders was really reaching its climax.  And suddenly Jesus is arrested and crucified.  The Lord even knew it and foretold to his disciples that he would be handed over.  As for the timing, this is the setting to the dialogue we read today.

A Pious Entrapment

3.  I mentioned that the scene is the temple.  A temple is a place to worship.  Of course, it is a place where it is expected that people are pious.  Thus, in this scene, we will surely hear pious words.  The disciples of the Pharisees and people from the Herodian sect address the Lord with this, "Master, we know that you are true, you teach the way of God based on the truth, and you are a person who does not hesitate before anyone; for, you do not show favoritism.  So, what do you think?  Please tell us.  Is it in accordance with the law [of Moses] or not to pay taxes to the emperor [of the Roman empire, i.e. Caesar]?," (verses sixteen and seventeen).

4.  Their question to him seemed like a very important and serious one that concerned itself with the relationship of a faith community and the state.  However, their intention was not to obtain a sincere answer to that question of theirs.  It may not necessarily be the case that a person who asks a pious and religious question is sincerely seeking for an answer to his or her question.  Where did their intentions lie?  "Then the Pharisees departed and discussed how they might ensnare him by taking the reasoning of Jesus' words," (verse fifteen), says the text.  Their purpose was to entrap the Lord.

5.  This word "then" continues the narrative to the end of chapter twenty-one.  The way the text reads there is: "The chief priests and the Pharisees heard this parable, realized that Jesus was speaking about them, and would have arrested Jesus, but they were afraid of the multitude; for, the multitude felt that Jesus was a prophet," (21:45-46).  Thus, the presence of the multitude supporting Jesus became an obstacle for those who hated him.  There was only one of two ways for them to knock off Jesus under this condition.  One, get the multitude to drop their support of Jesus and let them become enemies of Jesus.  If they did that, they could arrest Jesus without fear of a commotion by the multitude.  The other [way was] to make Jesus out to be an agitator in rebellion against the Roman empire.  If they did that, they could wipe Jesus out lawfully through the authority of the Roman state.  So, they cleverly devised a question regarding the pay of taxes.

6.  It was the taxes they paid to the emperor that was at issue here.  This was a poll tax introduced along when Judea became an area under the direct control of Rome in A.D. 6.  The poll tax, the way it was set up, was a big blow to the economically weak.  This must have bent the Jews over quite severely while under Roman rule.  Also, there was a great problem for them from a religious perspective.  What they used to pay taxes was the Roman coin, the denarius.  They say this was what was written on it, "The divine son of Augustus, Tiberius the high priest made emperor."  Here we have inscribed not only a [claim to] political authority, but a claim to divine authority.  Therefore, for the Jews faithful to the law it was a serious problem of right from wrong to pay taxes to the emperor as long as he was deified by means of such a denarius coin.

7.  Those who opposed this tax the most were the Zealot Party who had their activities mostly in Galilee as their center which was the home area of the Lord Jesus.  They were unbending nationalists and later they would come to wage the Jewish Wars with independence from Rome as their goal.  They were faithful to the law, and the Pharisees who wanted to keep the purity of Judaism, as you'd expect, opposed this tax.  However, it never seemed to have gone as far as a refusal to pay the tax.  The Herodian Party, which supported the royal house of Herod which was subordinate to Rome, was rather in favor of paying this tax.

8.  Well, they were trying to ensnare the Lord with a question related to such a hot point in religion.  What if the Lord Jesus had answered, "It is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?"  Many from the multitude that was surrounding the Lord Jesus were hoping for liberation from Rome.  The Lord might wind up losing the support of the public by his answer to this.  Even more, they might turn into the Lord's enemy.  Then, what if he had answered, "It is unlawful to pay taxes to the emperor?"  He would be declaring a refusal to pay taxes right in the midst of the many people of the multitude.  It would ignite the anti-Roman sentiments of the people and could actually create a frenzy among them.  Worse, even if for argument's sake that never happened, it was possible that they might accuse him to the authorities that he stirred up the multitude to rebel against Rome.  Their purpose would thus be fulfilled.

9.  Their plan so full of animosity and hatred was put into effect in the temple.  It was put into practice under the guise of pious words.   It may not necessarily be the case that a person who asks forth a question related to religion is sincerely seeking for an answer.   It may not be the case that a person who presents an argument with devout wording is always interested in God himself.  It may not be the case that at that point [in time] he has trust, submission, and a love for God.  What might be present there [with him] is malice and animosity or there may only be feelings of self-preservation.  It happened at the temple.  The darkness of this sin filled world may also lie in the bright spots to the human eye and in situations that seem to be sincere and pure rather than always in the gloomy situations the eye frequently sees.  In this scene we feel as if we see the sinfulness of humanity and its unending dark.  In the midst of such sinful darkness stood the Lord Jesus.  He stood there as a man heading for the cross.

Give* God Back What's God's

10.  Then the Lord said to them.  "O hypocrites, why are you trying to test me?  Show me the money which you pay in taxes."  They brought a denarius coin used in tax payments.  Then the Lord asked them, "Whose picture and inscription is this?"  Placing the actual coin before them, they only stated the truth.  They said, "It's the emperor's."  Thereupon, the Lord said, "Well, give the emperor what belongs to the emperor and God what belongs to God."

11.  "Give the emperor what belongs to the emperor."  He doesn't say since the authority of the emperor was absolute, they had to pay the tax even if they were reluctant or even if it was unlawful.  He doesn't say pay the tax since the emperor had divine authority as was inscribed on the coin.  What the Lord intended was totally opposite to that.  He said pay taxes not because the emperor was absolute or had a divine existence.  He says hadn't we better pay him if the coin is his and since he says pay up.  That's how the Lord instead had relativized the authority that was considered absolute in the empire; [he put the emperor in his proper place in relation to the true Emperor of emperors and the real Lord of lords].  Instead, his words dealing with absolute authority came next.  The Lord added, "Pay to God what belongs to God.'"  Also, this phrase swallows up the phrase before of "to the emperor belong the things of the emperor."

12.  Therefore,  the Lord is not saying in this passage that on one side there is a worldly territory under the control of the empire, but on the other side is a religious territory that God controls.  He is not saying there is a difference in the issue of state and religion.  The state also belongs to God. The emperor also belongs to God.. This world belongs to God.  We ought to pay God back.  The fact that the denarius coin belonged to the emperor only has relative meaning in light of the fact that this world originally belonged to God.  In other words, we could say the Lord shot back a question with absolute meaning to those who came to him trying to entrap him with such an issue of paying taxes.  To those who asked whether they should pay the tax to the emperor or not, they were asked back "Are you living by considering what belongs to God as God's?  Are you living by seeking for God's things to be paid to God?

13.  Actually, the fundamental problem of humankind lies in the very fact of when one does not live taking God's things as God's.  That is, [the basic core problem] is to live as if this world was originally owned by "man."  Thus, humanity misuses this world.  [Humankind] misuses nature, misuses state authority, misuses relationships with the neighbors given to [him or her], misuses the bonds between parent-child, misuses the covenant between husband and wife, and misuses his or her own life.  The results of abuse leads to nothing but disorder and confusion.  The world that began with "Let there be light" has returned to the dark of chaos since it has separated from God.  In the darkness caused by humans truly resounds the moaning and crying of human suffering.  That is the way this world really is.

14.  God chose Israel out from such a world.  He manifested himself to that people.  He did that to show himself to this world through this people.  But, Israel also misused the grace in which they were made the people of God.  We see this truth in the Old Testament.  When the Lord said, "Give back to God what's God's," it was first of all said to these Jews, the Israelites, who were chosen earlier.  And now the church is listening to these words of the Lord.  These words are being spoken right to us today.

15.  "Give back to God what's God's."  The first thing to give back to God must be the person himself or herself who has abused God's things in the way [described above].  It is written in the scriptures that "God modeled him after himself and created man," (Genesis 1:27).  As an image of the emperor was inscribed on the coins, originally God 's image was inscribed on humankind.  This possession** of God must be restored to God.  The struggle of the Lord Jesus truly was a fight for that purpose.

16.  As I said earlier, the scene in which this dialogue is placed is right before the cross.  It says, "As you know, in two days is the Passover festival.  The son of man will be handed over to be crucified."  This dialogue was not put here just to prove the Lord's wisdom.  The Lord did not rejoice in making the Jews lose out in an argument by his cleverness.  When the Lord said "Give back to God what belongs to God" he was heading towards his death.  It was precisely because he was the Lord saying "Give back to God what belongs to God" that he entrusted himself over to the will of God and sought to progress on the road to the cross.

17.  He did it so that we who used to be delivered over to sin would instead be returned to the hands of God.  He did it so that we, who originally were supposed to be engraved with the image of God should be restored again as such persons.  In spite of the fact that we belonged to God originally, a great sacrifice was paid in order to put us in his hands again.  He paid the great sacrifice of suffering the death of his own son.  The Bible expresses this truth as "You were bought up."  It is written like this:  "You were bought up when he paid the price.  Therefore, show forth the glory of God with your own bodies," (First Corinthians 6:20).

18.  As persons purchased with the price he paid, we will listen again to this message which was once spoken to the Jews.  "Give back to God what's God's."  Therefore, what we ought to do must be to present ourselves to God as persons who have been made God's by his grace.  First we present to God our own bodies "as holy living sacrifices pleasing to God," (Romans 12:1).  And, as God's we are re-sent back into this temporary world.

19.  Of course, in this world the situation still arises where it is necessary to say, "Pay the emperor what belongs to the emperor."  There are specific duties and responsibilities we have to carry.  However, we live not as persons subordinate to this world, but live all the way as God's.  "Give back to God what's God's."  These are words decisively oriented for a Christian's life.  We are being lead to return this world that is being misused by us ultimately back to the hands of God and to live in continually seeking that the rule of God be in heaven and in earth.  This seeking will take various specific forms in our lives.  It is really all about living as a people who pray "Thy kingdom come."

End Notes

*Give back or pay back.

**This word could be translated as "person, thing, what belongs to God."  The point is we as people belonged to God, but got away from God like a lost and wayward sheep and must be returned to God as his.

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