Theme: Jesus, the Final Authority, the Bible, His Perfect Word
This weeks lesson teaches us that no one can fool Jesus because he is God.
Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said,“Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.”And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.
The die is cast. Jesus has broken with Judaism, and the authorities are seeking for a way to get rid of him. They can’t just kill him, however; that would be murder. They have to catch him in a teaching they can construe as blasphemy, which was a capital offense. Or, at the very least, they have to discredit him before the people. This is what lies behind the three attempts to trap Jesus that we find in Matthew 22. They are expressed as questions: 1) Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar?; 2) How can rational persons believe in a physical resurrection?; and 3) What is the greatest commandment?
The interesting thing is that Jesus did not merely extricate himself from these little traps, but rather what he teaches on each occasion. In the case of paying taxes, he teaches the legitimate God-given authority of civil government, as well as its limits. In the case of the resurrection, he teaches about the authority of Scripture and the power of God. In the case of the commandments, he summarizes the entire law in terms of our duty to God, on the one hand, and our duty to our fellow human beings, on the other.
The first attempt to trap Jesus was the product of an unholy alliance between the Pharisees, most of whom strongly resented the rule of Rome over their own subject nation, and the Herodians, who were more accepting of the foreign power. Normally the Pharisees would not have worked closely with the Herodians at all. But here these two rival parties team up to ask Jesus a trick question about taxes: “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not” (v.17).
They thought that if Jesus said it was right to pay taxes, they could discredit him with the people who hated Rome and for whom these taxes were a much resented burden. He would lose an enormous amount of popular support and could be dismissed as a collaborator. He might even be refused as the Messiah because it was understood that one of the functions of the Messiah was to drive out any occupying power and establish the Davidic kingdom. On the other hand, if Jesus said that they should resist Rome by refusing to pay taxes, then his enemies could denounce him to the authorities as a dangerous insurrectionist.
Jesus asked for a coin. When they produced it, he asked whose portrait was on the coin and whose inscription, probably holding it out to them so they could see it. “Caesar’s,” they replied.
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” Jesus said, laying the basis for Paul’s teaching in Romans 13:7: “Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes,” and Peters teaching, when he wrote, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right” (1 Peter 2:13-14). However, at this point I think Jesus must have flipped the coin over, exposing the back on which there would have been a portrait of one of the Roman gods or goddesses, as he continued, making the contrast, “and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21).
The first part of Jesus’ answer reinforced Caesar’s authority, even in such an unpopular matter as taxes. The second part drew limits. Although the state has a God-given and therefore legitimate authority, the authority of God is greater. Therefore, those who know God must worship and obey him even if, in some cases, it means disobeying Caesar.
Why do the Pharisees ask Jesus so many questions?
How did the Pharisees think that they would trap Jesus with their question?
Read Romans 13:1-7 and I Peter 2:13-25. What else do we learn about submitting to authority in these passages?