Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Matthew 22:15–22

Matthew 22:15–22 (ESV): Paying Taxes to Caesar


Another fairly short and straightforward passage; rather than summarizing what is already obvious, you can just read it.


There are times when I can almost give the religious leaders of Jesus’ day the benefit of the doubt, and think that maybe, in this instance, they’re really trying to have a discussion, or possibly listening to what Jesus says, even if they do end up ultimately rejecting him. This is obviously not one of those times; the Pharisees are specifically setting out to “entangle [Jesus] in his words” (verse 15 (ESV)), making verse 16 (ESV) even more sleazy, when their emissaries try to butter Jesus up with flattery before asking their question. (Obviously it didn’t work on Jesus. That probably could have gone without saying.)

This is another example where we should keep cultural issues in mind; the Pharisees aren’t engaging Jesus in a religious debate, this is more of a political one. (With some trappings of religion.) They are thinking that no matter what Jesus answers, they can turn it against him:
  • If he advises the Jews to pay taxes he will lose the support of many of the people, who believe (according to the ESV Study Notes) that paying taxes to their non-Israelite rulers contradicts God’s lordship over His people.
  • On the other hand, if Jesus says not to pay taxes then he can be accused of treason to the Roman rulers—and undoubtedly the Pharisees would be the first to point out his treason to the Romans.
Obviously Jesus knows what they’re up to, but it’s not important because as is also usual he ignores the surface issues of their question and gets to the heart of the matter: rather than getting embroiled in a political debate with them, he simply tells them to do what is right. Give God what you owe Him; give your government what you owe it; it’s not in this passage, but give your neighbour what you owe her, too.

When some of the Jews of Jesus’ day felt that paying taxes to Rome was contradictory to God’s lordship, how much of that was really religion and how much was that they simply didn’t want to pay taxes? (When the modern-day Tea Party spouts trickle-down economics and talks about the poor pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, how much of that is them wanting to improve their country and how much is that they simply don’t want to pay taxes?) Do the Pharisees really care about Jesus committing treason against Rome? No, they’re just looking for an excuse to get rid of him.

I don’t think it’s the core of Jesus’ point, but a side message of this passage is that taxes aren’t wrong, and it’s not wrong for a government to demand taxes of its citizens. If a government does demand taxes of you, pay them. Give to Caesar what is owed to Caesar.

No comments: