In ancient Mediterranean culture, no question is neutral. It is always intended and perceived as a challenge to one’s honor. Today’s Gospel portrays Jesus once again as a master of the cultural game of challenge and riposte.
Setting the Trap
So far Jesus has been fencing with the chief priests and elders. Now the Pharisees and Herodians launch an attack on him.
Matthew’s editorial comment leaves no doubt about their intentions: the Pharisees intend to entrap Jesus by what he says (Mt 22:15). They enlist the Herodians in their plot.
The questioners begin with flattery to take Jesus off guard. A Pharisee compliments Jesus on being “honest” (true, a truthful man), teaching the way of God authentically, and caring little about honor, that is, taking no account of any person’s status or opinion.
In actuality, Jesus was very sensitive to honor. He did care about the opinions of others (Mt 16:13). Eagerness to trap Jesus causes the Pharisees to exaggerate. Jesus is not taken in.
Jesus was aware of the malice behind the question and understood the challenge. If he said it was not lawful to pay the tax, he would anger the Roman officials. If he said it was in accord with Torah, he would offend the ardent nationalists who hated everything about the Romans.
Turning the Tables
“Show me the coin that pays the census tax,” says Jesus. Before they recognize Jesus’ trap, they produce the specific coin. In the time of Jesus, the denarius bore the image of the emperor Tiberius, who ruled between 14 and 37 CE, and an inscription: “Tiberius Caesar, Augustus, son of the divine Augustus, high priest.”
Pharisees were particularly disturbed by the attribution of divinity to Caesar but also considered possession of this graven image to be idolatrous. They devised ways to pay this tax without possessing or handling the coin. It would be very shameful if a Pharisee produced the coin.
But if a Herodian in the group produced the coin, the Pharisees would still be shamed by having selected unworthy allies.
In either case, the fact that someone in their group possessed and produced the coin was shameful. Jesus’ first riposte to their challenge cuts deep.
His second riposte lies in his questions: “Whose head? Whose title?” The inscription and image were plainly visible and clearly legible. The Pharisees’ reply sets up Jesus’ positive answer: “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” Later (see Lk 23:2) the Pharisees will lie and say that Jesus answered negatively.
Actually, Jesus and the Pharisees probably held similar opinions about paying the tax. It could cause more trouble not to pay it. Life is preferable to death, and if this is what it costs to coexist peaceably with the Romans in their empire, so be it.
What Really Matters
Jesus’ concluding exhortation, “Give to God the things that belong to God,” implies that neither the Pharisees nor the Herodians are doing that. This is a serious charge. The Pharisees were so devoted to observing the Torah’s 613 commandments that they put a “hedge around the Torah.”
They proposed observing just a little bit more to be sure of pleasing God. Was Jesus exaggerating their minor foibles as the Pharisees earlier exaggerated Jesus’ insensitivity to honor? Whatever the case, Jesus won this contest and reminded his adversaries that what mattered most was pleasing God.
Americans tend to see in this passage an argument for the separation of church and state. Such an idea makes no sense in first-century Mediterranean culture.
Religion and economics both are embedded in politics and kinship. There was state religion (Temple; empire) and family religion (home); state economics (taxes and redistribution) and family economics (gifts and sharing). Our modern Western situation and its challenges are very different. For us as for our ancestors what matters most is to please God.