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The Authority of the Empire

A sermon on Matthew 22:15-22 by Dr Ross Langmead, Professor of Missiology at Whitley College

I love this story about paying taxes. It shows Jesus at his cleverest, avoiding the trap that the Pharisees set for him. He not only avoids the trap; he uncovers their hypocrisy and idolatry in one staggering answer.

It reminds me of a time when I was conscripted into the Australian army to fight in Vietnam. I decided I would go to prison rather than fight an unjust war, and I well remember spending a whole day filling false registration cards for conscription, signing as Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, in an attempt to clog the system with bogus registrations. My father told me in no uncertain terms that I should obey the state as an instrument of God, as Romans 13 says, and render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, as today’s passage (Mt 22:15-22) says. I didn’t agree then, and I don’t agree now.

Things had been getting tense between Jesus and the Pharisees. They sensed that what he stood for ran directly against what they stood for, which was respectability by sticking to the smallest demand of the religious law. At the centre was the question of authority. Who is to be followed, the religious leaders, with their many demands, or this upstart carpenter, Jesus, who seemed to claim authority for himself, even above the law.

In chapter 21 Jesus had entered Jerusalem as if he was king, with crowds cheering him (Mt 21:1-11). He’d actually driven out the money changers in the temple, almost causing a riot (21:12-17). He’d deflected a question from the Pharisees about where his authority came from (21:23-27). And he’d targeted the Pharisees with his pointed parable of the wicked tenants (21:33-46). They knew it and they were as mad as hell.

So they plotted and then set him up in public. With forked tongues they began by saying, “We know you’re a great teacher and you teach the way of God”, and so on. Then they asked the poisoned question: “Should we pay taxes to the emperor or not?” (v.17) If he says “Yes”, we’ll brand him as someone who co-operates with the Roman invaders. If he says “No”, we’ll brand him as a revolutionary and a trouble maker. Ah hah! We’ve cornered him!

If you were a Jew in the crowd that day, you would have known instantly what that question meant, and you would have frozen in anticipation.

The tax the Pharisees were talking about was what Caesar demanded to support his armies. It had to be paid in silver coins called denarii, made in distant Gaul and bearing on one side the image of Tiberius Caesar, and the words “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, himself holy”. On the other side was a picture symbolising the peace of Rome and the words “High Priest”.

Jewish law banned any image of a person in the temple, let alone any image of a person claiming to be divine, and here was the hated occupier of Israel claiming divinity on a coin! It was blasphemy. As Ex 33 reminds us, God is so holy that we cannot see God’s face and live. God is ultimate mystery and author of all life. Icons of the divine were forbidden. It was only in the last thirty years that Roman emperors had started putting their images on coins, and there had been a Jewish uprising over it, when thousands of Jews died rather than to allow a foreign icon pollute Jerusalem. The Romans won that little battle, and here were the coins, still in use.

But the Pharisees co-operated with the Jewish political leaders, the Herodians, by carrying these coins, changing them for other coins in the temple, and enabling the tax to be paid.

They had set him up and were on the attack. But when he asked for a coin, he attacked in return, with a simple, disarming question. “Whose head is this, and whose title?” (emphasising Caesar’s claim to be god) (v.20). “Caesar’s”, they replied, by now feeling very uncomfortable. With one question he had uncovered the fact they were actually the ones who had sold out to the Romans. They were the ones who allowed other gods to have authority instead of Yahweh alone.

Then the most incredible answer: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things are God’s.” (v.21)

That which is Caesar’s, this Roman coin and its blasphemous image and inscription, should go back to Caesar. Let those who co-operate with this blasphemous empire keep on paying the tax. But the faithful Jew, who refuses to adulterate the temple with pictures of people who claim to be gods, should go on giving all of life to God.

Jesus was talking like a good rabbi who indirectly refers to a bible verse each time he speaks. We are made in the image of God, Genesis 1 tells us. Jesus was echoing Genesis 1 and implying that no-one should turn that around and by their own image claim to be God. As Thess 1:9 puts it, we should turn from our idols and worship the living and true God.

Jesus penetrated to the heart of the issue by suggesting for the umpteenth time in these two chapters that his authority came from God and God alone has authority. His answer, on the surface, enabled him to escape punishment by the Roman authorities for treason, but the meaning was clear to all present. Matthew says that those who heard him were amazed (v.22), and the Pharisees, totally defeated and condemned, melted away.

This passage has been understood by many people to say that there are two realms, those of politics and of religion. We should obey the state and obey God, and the two don’t overlap. Try telling that to Martin Luther King. Try telling that to Nelson Mandela. Try telling that to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the confessing church in Hitler’s Germany.

It has been coupled with Romans 13, which has been used for centuries to justify passive obedience to the state, even when the state has been monstrous. How could Paul be referring to the state when he said that the authorities are put there by God, and whoever resists them resists God? (Rom 13:1-2) He lived under the brutal and murderous regime of Rome!

I would suggest that we re-read Romans 13 with a completely different understanding. Perhaps the “authorities” Paul is talking about are the leaders of the church. In the surrounding chapters Paul is talking about the marks of the true church and how we ought to live together in peace and love. I can hardly imagine Paul telling us to submit to anyone other than to God and to each other as Christians. It doesn’t appear to be about obeying governments at all. And neither is Matthew 22, where Jesus’ punch line is “Give to God what belongs to God.”

Both Jesus and Paul are consistent in proclaiming that there is a new order growing from within society, and that order is the gracious, liberating reign of God. No other authority stands, ultimately, than the gentle, transforming love of God. We owe our creation to God, as we are made in God’s image. We owe our new creation to God, who in Christ remakes us and restores us.

And this new order of things has political and social and economic implications. This passage is not about whether we should pay our taxes, but who we worship in our daily lives. Will we live out allegiance to the state, the economy, the mass media, consumerism, status-driven values and wealth? Or allegiance to God, to the new community, to upside-down kingdom values and to a radical alternative which is the source of hope and transformation?

Jesus refused to be tied to merely political comment. He didn’t answer the Pharisees on their own terms. He shook up their whole world view and reminded them about absolute allegiance to God. All things are under God. That’s the message. It is only then, we should note, there are real political and economic implications. Perhaps if the church got the message right it would also more clearly explore the daily implications more radically.


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