[Give] To God What Belongs To God

October 16, 2005
日本キリスト教団 頌栄教会牧師 清弘剛生 Pastor Takao Kiyohiro, Shoei Church, Church of Christ, Japan
Translator M.A.F., Indiana, USA
Matthew 22:15-22

1. "Pay to the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and to God what belongs to God," (verse twenty-one). This is the word of the Lord given to us today.

The Sly Question

2. This statement was spoken as a reply to the following question. "Teacher, we know that you are true, you teach the way of God based in the truth, and you do not fear anyone; for, you do not make distinctions between one man and another. Therefore, what are your thoughts? Please show us. Is the paying of taxes to the emperor in accordance with the law or is it against it?," (verses sixteen and seventeen).

3. The issue here is "the taxes [they] pay to the emperor." This was a poll tax levied on persons [rather than property] in the sixth year of the common era, introduced when Judea became an area under the direct control of Rome. Structurally, this taxation became a heavy blow to the economically weak. This [oppressive tax] must have borne down hard upon the Jews under Roman rule. For that reason, much of the public was against paying the tax.

4. But, that's not all. On top of that, there was a huge religious issue besides. It [involved] the Roman coin, the denarius, used in paying taxes. It had engraved on it the image of Tiberius the emperor. In addition, along with the image, it had the following words engraved on it: "Son of the Most High God, As the Emperor, Tiberius the High Priest." To get to the point, it was not just a claim to political authority inscribed on the coin, but a claim to divine authority. As a result, the paying of taxes to an emperor who claimed equal authority to God was a very very huge issue pertaining to their faith and identity as a people.

5. Among them, those who were most opposed to taxes was the Zealot party, which used to be active with Galilee as its center, where was Jesus' home town. They were die hard nationalists. Later, they would be the ones to wage the Judean battles for independence from Rome. In addition, as one might expect, the Pharisees, loyal to the Torah law and always trying to maintain the purity of Judaism, were against the tax. But, it doesn't seem that it went from an actual judgment call to a refusal to pay taxes [to Rome]. On the other hand, the Herodian sect, which was in support of Herod's Rome-subordinate government, was in favor of the payment of this tax because they were getting a considerable profit out of it.

6. Thus, because this was an issue related to faith and an issue that was divided into specific opposite responses, the question of "Is the paying of taxes to the emperor in accordance with the law or is it against it?" had arisen. In saying "Whether it is in accordance with the law or not?," that could also be put like this, "Is it in accordance with the will of God or not?" It is a question about how a believer should conduct oneself in accordance with God's will in one's day to day life in one's dealings with a political state. It is a very serious and very pious question. They brought this very question to Jesus.

7. But, it is not always the case that a person presenting a pious and religious question is sincerely seeking for an answer to his or her question. As a matter of fact, their purpose lied in a particular spot. The scripture tells their plan just before in the text, that by design they had come to him to ask a question. It says in verse fifteen, "After that, the Pharisees left, and they discussed how they might set a trap by catching Jesus in the reasoning of his words." Their purpose was to set a trap for the Lord.

8. The Judean power figures were behind these inquisitors. Why did they need to set a trap to deliberately catch Jesus in his language? The reason is set forth in the end of chapter twenty-one as follows. "Upon hearing this parable the chief priests and the Pharisees realized that Jesus was speaking about them, and they wanted to arrest Jesus, but, they feared the public because the public thought that Jesus was a prophet," (21:45-46).

9. In short, the biggest obstacle for those who wanted to arrest and kill Jesus was the existence of the public. Under these circumstances there was only one or two ways to eliminate Jesus. One, get rid of public support for Jesus and turn him into their enemy. If they could do that, they could arrest Jesus without fearing the agitation of the public. Or two, make Jesus out to be an agitator who was against the Roman empire. If they could do that, they could legitimately eliminate Jesus through the authority of the Roman government. This is what they had figured out in their scheme, it is [where they were coming from in] their question pertaining to the paying of taxes.

10. What would happen if Jesus answered, "Paying tax to the empire is in accordance with the law"? The large crowd surrounding Jesus was some people who were wishing so much from the heart for liberation from Rome. The Lord may lose the support of the public because of this answer. Or, worse they would turn into the Lord's enemies. One [of the points] raised earlier would come true. They could arrest Jesus without a worry in the world.

11. But, if he had answered, "Paying tax to the empire is not in accordance with the law," what would have happened? This declaration would have looked exactly like the beginning of an anti Roman war that most of the public was hoping for. It could have set aflame an anti Roman pathos among the people and practically incited wild behavior from them. Then, the Roman army would have intervened. Yet though, even if none of that happened, they could appeal to the officials in charge accusing him of having agitated the public to go against Rome.

12. So, either way Jesus might answer, he would be driven into a dilemma. Their purpose would then come true. Their scheme, so filled with animosity and hatred, would be put into effect under a cloak of reverential language.

13. As I mentioned earlier, those presenting a question pertaining to religion are not necessarily always seeking an answer in sincerity. Those who discuss things with reverential language are not necessarily always interested in God himself. Their motive had nothing in common with love for God, or trust and reliance upon God. What filled their hearts was surely nothing but ill will, enmity, or perhaps even a desire for self preservation.

14. In relation to the questioners who came to Jesus and those behind them, many people reading this may suppose a truly evil looking humanity, wicked and sly. But, perhaps the actual figure of these [people] is altogether different from the image we imagine. In Jewish society they were considered straight-laced and devout. As fine folk, they were generally persons of respect.

15. Watching the news that tells us about heinous incidents, we bemoan the crimes and sins of society, but yet, as the scriptures illustrate, the manifesting of sin's dreadful power is often in places that look cheerful to society, that look like decent and pure places, and where righteousness is spoken. We feel like in this scriptural scene we are stricken with an attitude of human sinfulness and unfathomable pitch blackness. In that pitch blackness Jesus was standing. As the one heading to the cross for the atonement for [our] sin, the Lord was standing there.

Give To God What Belongs to God

16. After that the Lord said to them, "Deceivers, why are you trying to test me? Show me the money with which you pay taxes." They brought a coin, a denarius, which they used for paying taxes. Then the Lord asked them, "As for this [coin], whose image and inscription [is on it]?" They [could] only state the facts with the actual currency before them and said, "It is the emperor's." Whereupon, the Lord said, "So then, give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor and to God what belongs to God."

17. "Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor and to God what belongs to God." Of course, Jesus was not saying "Since the emperor is absolute, you had better pay your taxes, even if it is reluctantly." Instead [he said] the opposite, "Pay taxes, but not because the emperor is absolute and not because he is equal to God."

18. The emperor's having inscribed his own image on the coin is clearly an assertion of his authority to rule. The emperor's having inscribed "Tiberius, the son of god" on his coins is obviously a claim to his divine authority. But, Jesus completely relativizes the issue relating it to temporal authority. You might say he just shrugs it off. In short, [Jesus] is saying that "Since Tiberius had his own image inscribed on money and says this empire is mine, since he is saying the money and the empire belongto me, shouldn't you give it to him as payment?" The image engraved on the coins and the claim to authority are not any kind of major issued because there is another message having absolute significance to which we truly should give heed. It follows next. The Lord goes on to say, "Give to God what belongs to God."

19. After Jesus identified the coin upon which the imperial image was engraved as "What belongs to the emperor," he spoke regarding "What belongs to God." What Jesus meant by it had to be clear to those who were listening to him there. -- [Each] human being is someone upon whom "the image of God" is stamped, which is not the imperial image. Just as the image on the coin expresses Caesar's rule over his empire, the existence of human beings upon whom the image of God is engraved expresses the rule of God over this world. Human beings belong to God, and this world belongs to God. "Give to God what belongs to God." -- You could say that the Lord threw back at those who had come to him trying to set a trap with a question about paying taxes a question having absolute significance. "To begin with, are you living [each day] making what belongs to God his? Are you living and seeking to give back to God what belongs to God?," he asks them back.

20. We certainly come face to face on a daily basis with numerous issues of "whether we should pay taxes to the emperor or not." It does happen that we must face decisions on what lies before us. It also happens that these decisions are split and find resistance. But, what must truly be brought into question is "To begin with, are you living [each day] making what belongs to God his?"

21. As a matter of fact, the fundamental issue for humanity lies in its not living by honoring God with what belongs to God. That is to say, [the people in] the world are living like they really own it. Thus, humankind abuses the world. We abuse nature, we abuse state governmental authority, we abuse relationships with the neighbors we are given, we abuse parent-to-child bonds, we even abuse our very lives. I mentioned before we are hit up with our own human sinfulness and an unfathomable pitch blackness. We are. We human beings even abuse how we relate to God.

22. "Give to God what belongs to God." -- We should first give back to God our own selves upon which God's image is engraved. We don't bring back to God "what belongs to God" in a human being. Jesus went to the cross to do that. "Give to God what belongs to God" does not mean just lip service. Jesus spoke with the full realization that he was casting his life away so that humankind in sin would be pardoned for sin and handed over into God's hands as His. In order to bring that about, he had the conviction to pay the sacrifice himself. He had the full intention to pay the full price. In fact, the Lord did pay the price. With his own life! Therefore, the Bible says it like this to us, "You are bought with a price." This is how it is written, "You are brought with a price. Therefore, show forth the glory of God by means of your bodies," (First Corinthians 6:20).

23. We will listen to this message spoken to the Jews and the people who have been bought with a price. "Give to God what belongs to God." Therefore, what we ought to do is to be God's own people by [his] grace and to offer ourselves up to God. First, we offer to God our bodies "as a holy living sacrifice for God's pleasure," (Romans 12:1). That's [true] worship from us [to Him].