Testing a King: why?

Coinage1Matthew 22:15–22 15 Then the Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap him in speech. 16 They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. 17 Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” 18 Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin. 20 He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” 21 They replied, “Caesar’s.” At that he said to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” 22 When they heard this they were amazed, and leaving him they went away.

Jesus’ Response. “Why are you testing me?” in the response, using the same word as in Mt 4:3 where the interlocutor is Satan. Here the Pharisee play the role. The narrator’s comment to the reader in Mark’s gospel becomes Jesus’ direct address to the Pharisees in Matthew, “hypocrites” and will become the keynote of 23:1–36 (“…The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice…Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites…”).

But Jesus, as always, knows their thoughts (9:4; 26:10), and responds accordingly. Jesus’ answer famously avoids either of the dangerous alternatives – as with response to the authorities in 21:23–27 (“By what authority…”) – he asks them are more probing and revealing question. “Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin. He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” “ In two ways it undercuts his questioners’ position, and in so doing provides an answer in principle which has much wider application than simply to their trick question.

In the first place, Jesus’ request for a denarius was more than just the provision of a visual aid. Pious Jews objected to the “idolatrous” coin (described above) which contravened first and second commandments (Ex 20:3-4) of graven images and other gods. Roman imperial policy, aware of this sensitivity, allowed the Jews to coin their own non-idolatrous copper money, which sufficed for normal everyday business. Although the census tax required the official Roman coin, on a daily basis there was no need for them to carry the silver denarius with the image of the Emperor. Jesus apparently did not have one—but they did, and in the holy precincts of the temple at that! The moment is revelatory in many ways. It reveals them as hypocrites and makes it clear to the on-looker, if these Pharisees are using and carrying the emperor’s (idolatrous) coinage they could hardly object to paying his tax.

The verb in v. 21, “give back to the emperor”, neatly presses the point, and underlines Jesus’ description of them as “hypocrites” (v. 18). When Jesus pronounces that what is already the emperor’s should be given to him, while avoiding either a direct yes or no, he in fact gives an indirect yes. It is not against the Torah (this was the form of the question in v. 17, “Is it lawful?) to pay taxes to the emperor. The Pharisees acknowledge this by participating in the economic system made possible by Rome, even by having Roman coins in the Temple area. Although unconvinced, the Pharisees are silenced and depart from this encounter “amazed.

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