Matthew already told us this was a trap. Pharisees and Herodians buttered Jesus up to ask this:
Matthew 22:17-22 (my translation, compare NIV)
17 “So, tell us what you think: should we pay tribute to Caesar or not?”
18 Aware of their evil intent, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you play actors? 19 Show me the tribute coin.” They offered him a denarius. 20 He says to them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
21 “Caesar’s” they replied.
Then he said to them, “Return Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”
22 His response astounded them. They took their leave and departed.
If you don’t understand what this question meant in his culture, you might misunderstand Jesus’ answer. We often separate life into two domains: the physical world includes the country where you pay taxes to your rulers, and the spiritual world includes the church where you pay tithes to God. This separation of the physical and spiritual worlds (church and state) has been so common in recent centuries that it has a name: the “two kingdoms” view.
That’s not the Bible’s framework. Earth is not divided into two domains, with God ruling part of life and humans ruling the other. God is sovereign over everything, and the problem with the world is humans resisting his commands, controlling each other through violence, taking power into our own hands (Genesis 1 – 11). God did not tell the Hebrews, “You’re to live in two kingdoms, serving Pharaoh and me.” He told Pharaoh, “Release my people so they may serve me.”
For Jesus’ people, the problem with paying taxes was serving a ruler other than the One they should be serving. The archaic word tribute retains the sense of a tax offered as homage, in recognition of your ruler. Examples:
- Paying tribute indicated serving a foreign ruler (Judges 3:15-18).
- Receiving tribute indicated other nations were serving them (2 Samuel 8:2, 6; 1 Kings 4:21; 2 Kings 3:4).
- When the last king of Israel refused to pay tribute, Assyria destroyed Israel (2 Kings 17:3-5).
- The last king of Judah had served Babylon, but turned against Nebuchadnezzar and rebelled. Stopping tribute payments triggered the exile (2 Kings 24:1).
- The Persians imposed tribute throughout the empire (Esther 10:1). The returning exiles were falsely accused of rebellion and sedition, i.e. refusing to pay taxes, tribute, or duty (Ezra 4:13, 19-22).
But the Hebrew word translated tribute (minḥâ) was not used only of giving recognition to an emperor. Most often it was used for recognizing God’s authority as ruler of his people. The tribute offered to their heavenly sovereign could be a grain offering (especially in Leviticus and Numbers), or the daily sacrifice each morning and evening (1 Kings 18:29, 36; Ezra 9:4-5; Daniel 9:21, 27; Malachi 1:10-13; 2:12-13; 3:3-4).
Israel’s uniqueness was that YHWH was their sovereign. This made them a kingdom of God, the prototype of a world returned to God’s kingship. Ultimately, all nations would bring him tribute (Isaiah 66:18).
The great disaster was that God’s people had not served him, so he had given them over to serve the rulers they wanted:
Nehemiah 9 36 But see, we are slaves today, slaves in the land you gave our ancestors so they could eat its fruit and the other good things it produces. 37Because of our sins, its abundant harvest goes to the kings you have placed over us. They rule over our bodies and our cattle as they please. We are in great distress.
When Jesus was born four centuries later, they’re still in captivity to foreign powers, waiting for a son of David to save his people (Matthew 1). Others had tried. When Jesus was just a child, a famous Galilean named Judas led a revolt against paying tribute to Rome, but he paid with his life (Josephus, Antiquities 17.23, compare Acts 5:37).
This question was a long-standing trap. If Jesus said Yes, the crowds would know he was not going to save them and restore the Davidic dynasty. If he said No, the Herodians would have grounds to arrest him for insurrection.
But Jesus’ answer does not support divided loyalties — as if they should be serving God and enslaved to Caesar. He asks them to show him the coin they use to pay tribute to Rome (22:19).
Jesus asks whose image they’re holding. And whose inscription. The Herodians may have enjoyed this, but for the Pharisees it was shameful. The founding commands for their nation prohibited a) giving primary allegiance to anyone else, and b) paying homage to any image. The second command was even accompanied by the warning that doing so would mess them up for generations (Exodus 20:3-5).
We can’t be certain what coin they held out to Jesus, but the inscription on Tiberius’ denarius read, Tiberius Caesar, son of the god Augustus (Ti Caesar Divi Aug F Augustus). Caesar could claim the title “son of a god” because his father had been deified by the Roman Senate when he died. If they tried to hide this image and inscription by turning the coin over, the reverse proclaimed the Emperor as their high priest (Pontif Maxim).
For what must have felt like an eternity, Jesus left them standing there with this illegal image and blasphemous inscription in their hands. Finally, he gave them an out. Perhaps they’d like to return it to Caesar, since it appears to be his coin.
They weren’t quite sure what Jesus meant. Did Jesus just support the funding of the Roman oppression by telling them to pay the taxes? Or did he so devalue Caesar and his currency that it isn’t something an honest person would want to keep?
While they’re still trying to figure it out, Jesus clarifies with the clincher. Once they return Caesar’s stuff to him, they can concentrate on giving tribute where it belongs. Giving Caesar’s coins back to Caesar is only the precursor to what truly counts: giving tribute to their true ruler, the Lord of heaven and earth.
How would they do that? Surely it would start with recognizing heaven’s authority on earth: not Caesar, the pretensions son of a humanly-created god, but the true Son of God, anointed by heaven with authority over the whole earth.
Will they give him their tribute? Not Caesar’s coins, but the currency that bears the image of the living God — their very selves.
No, the Messiah had not supported the funding of the Roman oppression of his people, just as he had not led a revolt against Roman oppression. He treated Rome and its currency as irrelevant, not worth keeping. He redirected them to giving the tribute where it counts.
They closed their mouths, astounded by his insight into the kingdom of God. The way Matthew tells it, it almost felt like a royal court where the king gave the perfect answer for a thorny issue. They bow respectfully and take their leave.
But the grip of evil is more tenacious. Before the week is out, they will discard the king of the Jews, preferring Caesar and his coins.
Open Matthew 22:17-22.
What others are saying
Josephus, Antiquities 18.22–23:
But of the fourth sect of Jewish philosophy, Judas the Galilean was the author. These men agree in all other things with the Pharisaic notions; but they have an inviolable attachment to liberty; and say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord. They also do not value dying any kind of death, nor indeed do they heed the deaths of their relations and friends, nor can any such fear make them call any man Lord.
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (London: SPCK, 2004), 2:86–87:
The issue of paying tax to the Roman emperor was one of the hottest topics in the Middle East in Jesus’ day. Imagine how you’d like it if you woke up one morning and discovered that people from the other end of the world had marched in to your country and demanded that you pay them tax as the reward for having your land stolen! That sort of thing still causes riots and revolutions, and it had done just that when Jesus was growing up in Galilee.
One of the most famous Jewish leaders when Jesus was a boy, a man called Judas (a good revolutionary name in the Jewish world), had led a revolt precisely on this issue. The Romans had crushed it mercilessly, leaving crosses around the countryside, with dead and dying revolutionaries on them, as a warning that paying the tax was compulsory, not optional. The Pharisees’ question came, as we would say, with a health warning. Tell people they shouldn’t pay, and you might end up on a cross.
At the same time, of course, anyone leading a kingdom-of-God movement would be expected to oppose the tax, or face the ridicule and resentment of the people. Surely the whole point of God becoming king was that Caesar wouldn’t be? If Jesus wasn’t intending to get rid of the tax and all that it meant, what had they followed him from Galilee for? Why had they all shouted Hosanna a few days earlier?
Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 525:
Palestine had many foreign coins in circulation (Schürer 1961: 196). The silver denarius of Tiberius, including a portrait of his head and minted especially at Lyon, circulated there in this period; although an earlier coin might be in view, this imperial denarius is most likely (Reicke 1974: 137; Avi-Yonah 1974/76a: 61; Hart 1984). The coin related directly to pagan Roman religion and to the imperial cult in the east: the side bearing his image also included a superscription, namely, “TI. CAESAR DIVI AVG. F. AVGVSTVS” — “Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus”; the other side bore a feminine image (perhaps of the Empress Livia personified as the goddess Roma) and read “PONTIF. MAXIM,” referring to the high priest of Roman religion (Deissmann 1978: 252n.2; Ferguson 1987: 70–71). The Empire actively used such coins to promote the worship of the emperor (Gardner 1974: xxviii), and while Jews were allowed to honor emperors, they were expected to avoid images (Jos. Apion 2.76–77). The emperor controlled the production of the coins, and they were officially his property (Lane 1974a: 424). Yet like it or not, Jews had to use this coin; it was the one required for the poll tax in all provinces (Lane 1974a: 424).