Proper 24, Year A: Matthew 22:15-22: Trick Question

Jesus and the tax coin - lithography

Source: iStockphoto.com

You can see all the lectionary readings for the Proper 24, Year A by clicking here. I have chosen to discuss the passage from the Gospel of Matthew.

The Pharisees are again plotting against Jesus. They make a new plan to trap him into saying something wrong and send some men to question him–this time some are fellow Pharisees and some are Herodians. For background, the Pharisees were nationalists who resented the rule of Rome, but Herodians supported Herod, who was ruling in the name of Rome. So really these are two groups that don’t agree coming after Jesus together. Their planned trap seems to be to get Jesus to choose a side and alienate one or the other, perhaps enough to get him arrested.

Their question is, “Teacher, we know you are an honest man. We know you teach the truth about God’s way. You are not afraid of what others think about you. All people are the same to you.So tell us what you think. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (Matthew 22: 16b-17, Easy-to-Read Version). It’s such a sneaky, political move–starting with flattery and leading up to the gotcha question. If Jesus says you should pay taxes to Caesar, (agreeing with the Herodians), the Pharisees will denounce him to the people and probably say he’s a blasphemer, since part of the people’s horror of Caesar is that he’s set up as a god and even called divine on the coins. If Jesus says you should not pay taxes, the Herodians would be angry and report him to the governor to be tried for treason. Of course, he sees right through them to their motives. 

“You hypocrites! Why are you trying to catch me saying something wrong? Show me a coin used for paying the tax.” They showed Jesus a silver coin. Then he asked, “Whose picture is on the coin? And whose name is written on the coin?”

They answered, “It is Caesar’s picture and Caesar’s name.”

Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.”

When they heard what Jesus said, they were amazed. They left him and went away.

(Matthew 22: 18b-22, Easy-to-Read Version)

I love this. Jesus is so brilliant. He doesn’t give them what he wants. He again first responds with another question, as he does so often in these exchanges. Then he refuses to give into the trick question and gives an amazing response. He’s not saying they shouldn’t pay taxes, but he avoids the pitfall of endorsing Caesar’s claim to divinity in his separation of Caesar from God. In my head I picture him coolly flipping the coin back at whoever handed it to him and leaving them with mouths hanging open.