An Underlying Thought. Jesus’ answer calls into question the basic presupposition behind their question, that there is an essential incompatibility between loyalty to the governing authority and loyalty to God. This was precisely Judas the Galilean’s position as explained by Josephus (War 2.118 and Ant. 18.23): to pay the tax was to tolerate a mortal sovereign in place of God. It was loyalty to God which was the basis for Zealot objections to Roman taxation, but Jesus, without reducing the demands of loyalty to God, indicates that political allegiance even to a pagan state is not incompatible with it. This is not a rigid division of life into the ‘sacred’ and the ‘secular’, but rather a recognition that the ‘secular’ finds its proper place within the overriding claim of the ‘sacred’.
It is possible to pay one’s dues both to the emperor and to God, to be both a dutiful citizen and a loyal servant of God. This principle, more fully expounded in Rom 13:1–7 and 1 Peter 2:13–17, has now been so widely recognized for so long that it causes no surprise to many of us in many parts of the world, but in first-century Palestine under Roman rule it was not at all so obvious. The theocratic basis of OT Israel, even if it had not been able to prevent periods of tyranny under unscrupulous rulers, had at least in theory held its rulers accountable to God. But the Roman emperor was not under Israel’s God, or indeed under any god—according to imperial propaganda he was a god. But Jesus’ response here puts him in his place: it is possible to be subject to the emperor as ruler, but at the same time to honor God as God
Jesus’ answer may also raise another, more subtle issue: “repay…to God what belongs to God.” The people of Jerusalem did not allow the Romans to carry Caesar’s image on a flag standard, but seemed to acquiesce to the coinage to a point. Some things are worth fighting for, some not. Why make an exception for money? Was it that important? By contrast, surrendering to God “what belongs to God” implied the surrender of all one was and possessed. In Jesus’ teaching elsewhere, possessions have zero value, and those who seek them are not ones who trust in God (6:19–34). Jesus is known as a poor, itinerant preacher carrying no coin – trusting solely on God. The Pharisees carry the emperor’s coin. It is clear in whom they place at least part of their trust – something that did not belong to Caesar.
Giving Back The word “give” in Jesus’ answer, can mean “give back” (apodidomi). The word was used in the sense of “paying back” a debt in the parable of the unforgiving servant (18:25, 26, 28, 29, 30, 34). It is the word was used of the new tenants who will “give (back)” the owner the fruit at the proper time (21:41). The word carries the sense of giving (back) that which already belongs to the other person. How do we know what things belong to Caesar? They have his image on them! How do we know what things belong to God? They have God’s image on them!
The word for “image” (eikon) is used in the LXX in Gen 1:26-27: “Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; . . . . So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” And in Gen 5:1: “This is the list of the descendants of Adam. When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God.” And in Gen 9:6: “. . . for in his own image God made humankind.” What are we to give to God? The things stamped with God’s image. That would be us! We are to give God ourselves, our whole selves, not just some part.
Amazed But Where From Here? When they heard this they were amazed, and leaving him they went away. As Keener notes: “Here people marvel at Jesus’ response (22:22); elsewhere people marvel at his teaching (7:28), his nature miracles (8:27), his healing (9:8), his exorcism (12:23), and in the Passion Narrative Pilate marvels at Jesus’ silence (27:14). In all these cases, Jesus confounds others’ expectations.” (526)
Still there is much to consider. While Matthew is clear that loyalty to God is a different and higher category than loyalty to Caesar, this text is not instruction on how people who live in a complex world of competing loyalties may determine what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. It simply declares that the distinction between what belongs to Caesar (as some things do) and what belongs to God (the ultimate loyalty) must be made, and he leaves it to readers in their own situations to discern, in the light of our own life to ponder the distinction (cf. 5:21–48).
A final thought; as Patricia Datchuck Sánchez notes: “Perhaps it is tempting to be amused at the picayune bickering of the Pharisees and Herodians; but they were intelligent enough to realize that Jesus had given them cause to reflect. Rather than be entertained by Jesus’ one-upmanship it might be better to join the Pharisees and Herodians in considering his challenge, “give to God what is God’s.”
Matthew 22:15 entrap: pagideuō lay a snare, catch (in a snare). Ordinarily the word describing the capturing of an animal; often in a fatal snare.
Matthew 22:21 repay to Caesar: apodidōmi means “give away, give back, repay.” Perhaps only coincidently it is the same verb used to describe the required actions of the tenant farmers in turning over the fruits of the harvest (21:41) to the rightful owner. what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God: literally, “the things that are the emperor’s and the things that are God’s”
- K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007)
- Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994)
- Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book, 2000)
- T. France, The Gospel of Matthew in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2007)
- T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 1, ed. Leon Morris (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989)
- Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991)
- Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2000)
- Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2009)
- Turner and D.L. Bock, Matthew and Mark in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, vol. 11 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005)
- David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1996)
- Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
- Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990)
Scripture: The New American Bible available on-line at http://www.usccb.org/bible/index.cfm