Updated: Feb 3, 2021
The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
This is the Gospel selection from the Episcopal Lectionary for Year A, Proper 24, the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost. It will next be read aloud by a priest on Sunday, October 22, 2017. It is important as Jesus saw through the trick of the Pharisees and told them worldly debt is owed to worldly rulers, but spiritual debt is owed to God.
When this reading is compared to the deeply metaphysical dream state of Moses speaking with God (Exodus 33) and Paul’s letter thanking the Thessalonians for helping spread the message of Christ (1 Thessalonians 1), a confrontation between Jesus and those planning to trap him in his teachings seems quite plain and simple. Certainly, many a priest will take this easy out and prepare a sermon about paying dues money, omitting the Moses and Paul connections.
After all, October is when those pledge cards are needed to be turned in and this Gospel reading is about sending in money. Right?
There are deeper issues involved in this reading, one of which is that few people today fully understand the financial responsibilities first century Jews bore. Another little grasped aspect is the different coins that were legal tender in the New Testament writings; and that ignorance makes it is easy to read this Gospel selection and think ALL coins bore the image of the emperor. That was not the case.
A Gospel reading every Sunday needs to relate that aspect of Jesus’ life with the lives Christians face in a modern world. Every reading must be applied in that manner, as if each person listening is personally involved in the story unfolding from the text. This leads one to question today, “How does this message apply to the American greenbacks (paper money or digital numbers) I own? How do I tithe, pay bills and taxes, help those in need, and still have enough for my family, including my retirement?”
To begin to address such monetary issues, here is a quick ancient history lesson first:
The coinage of Jesus’ day were either coined by the descendants of Herod the Great – shekels of silver mostly (but some of brass) – or those coined by the Romans, of which the denarius was one. The denarius and the assarius both had the Emperor’s image on them, but a lesser coin did not, as the Romans knew the Jews had complaints about graven images.
Still, the civil tax Rome demanded of all its subjects (including those in Judea and Galilee) had to be paid in denarius coins only. The Temple Tax, which was a financial burden on the Jews for the remodeling of Herod’s Temple, was to be paid in Tyrian Shekels, which were minted in Jerusalem. Those had the image of a plant on them.
The Tyrian Shekel was originally a Greek monetary unit (minted in Tyre), which was adopted by Herod the Great. Herod’s survivors (Archelaus, Antipas, Herod II, and Philip the Tetrarch) each eventually minted coins with their names, for circulation in the provinces they ruled for Rome.
The Herod family had Jewish roots, but little devotion or personal attention to tradition. They mostly did as Rome said, while honoring the Jewish people’s presence in a lost land, due to their willingness to accept foreign rule, as long as they could freely worship their God. Jerusalem had become something like Vatican City is to Italy, as special allowances were permitted within its walls. The Herodians were Jewish partisans of Herod Antipas, who had a palace in Jerusalem, although his area of official control was Galilee and the land beyond the Jordan.
With this brief background established, one can then read, “The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians” and realize two important elements are stated in that. One is the Pharisees involvement and the other is the involvement of their underlings.
First, the Pharisees were those who got personal wealth from knowing the Law. They were the first of a LONG line of Jewish lawyers, which is a profession Jews still excel in today. They learned lawyers never make any money simply by knowing the law. Obedience to the law means no one needs a lawyer. Lawyers only make money when legal questions stir up unrest, which then demands a lawyer help straighten things out … legally. Therefore, the Pharisees hatched a plan to entrap Jesus so his words could be used legally against him.
Second, the lawyers can never be the ones seen stirring up legal messes, which would void their rights to be part of the legal proceeding that follow. This means it is important to see how they sent their followers, or the disciples of the Law, as those underlings were not fully versed in all the intricate details of the Law. They were learning the practice that later would be applied before the judicial body of the Temple.
The Herodians were those who favored the Temple Tax, knowing that the Roman Civil Tax (a poll tax) lessened the amount Herod’s Temple could assess on Jews. The Pharisees, who held vast amounts of Jewish wealth, were not exempt from the Roman taxes, so their disciples were sent to stir the hornet’s nest that was the tax burdens placed on the Jewish people. Then, as today and commonly throughout history, taxation rubs a sore spot on taxpayers.
To then read these law students said to Jesus, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality,” this is standard classroom training of lawyers-to-be, where the pleasantries have little to do with proving Jesus was a Rabbi, was a sincere Law teacher, was trained to know the Law, and was unbiased in his application of the Law. Their smooth talk was a tactic of wooing the jury and courtroom watchers (the crowd surrounding Jesus on the Temple steps) with their complete lack of bias, as they set Jesus up for the kill question.
All that “buttering up” was designed to make a statement that Pharisees were fine and upstanding figures in Jewish society; and if Jesus wants to be speaking his mind on the Temple steps, then he needs to be a fair and balanced lawyer … like the Pharisees. His answer would be something like an unofficial bar exam.
In this regard, remember how three years earlier, following Jesus’ first Passover as a Rabbi on the Temple steps in Jerusalem, Nicodemus (probably the young, rich ruler unnamed later) came by night to recruit Jesus to the ranks of the Pharisees. The charisma they saw in Jesus would have been an excellent addition to their fund-raising abilities; so they wanted that fresh new face on their team. Jesus, however, rhetorically asked Nicodemus, “You call yourself a teacher of spiritual matters, when you do not know anything about spiritual matters?” That encounter meant that the Pharisees only stood for financial gain, through knowledge (a Big Brain power) of legal words.
The zinger question that was designed to be the trap Jesus was then, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” To paraphrase that question a little, they could have said, “Did Moses say the children of God should send silver to the Roman Empire?”
The obvious answer was, “No.” Moses never knew about the Temple of Jerusalem, nor the Romans. However, law is purposefully written in black and white, so that everything in between the lines of written text becomes the gray matter that Big Brained lawyers love to argue.
The trap was to have Jesus speak words that could then be used against him, as a Jew preaching rebellion against Roman taxation. A simple answer (the obvious answer) would have been enough to convict Jesus in a Roman court of law, as a seditionist. However, Jesus (led by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit and the Christ Mind) saw through the trap and went on the offensive.
Jesus asked, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” The operative word in that question was “hypocrites.”
The Greek word, “hypokritai,” actually means, “A stage-player,” as a “pretender.” The hypocrisy was those young lawyers-to-be knew the answer to their question, but pretended not to. They were “two-faced” in that regard. The use here, as a stand-alone statement in one word, says Jesus said they were those “whose profession does not match their practice.” They acted like they were seeking teaching (as disciples), when they were trying to get Jesus to perjure himself, as guilty of preaching revolution.
When Jesus then said, “Show me the coin used for the tax,” we are then told “they brought him a denarius.” By knowing that the denarius was the only currency accepted for payment of the Roman tax, which was required of all registered property owners and based on the value of that property, this explains why the Jews inside the Temple grounds would bring out that specific coin.
That says the Pharisees knew full well that an “income tax” on their wealth demanded they have a supply of denarii readily available; so they charged their Jewish clients in Roman coins or Tyrian Shekels, whichever they had on hand. Those silver coins would then be sold by weight (minas or talents) to Roman moneychangers, getting back only denarii when tax time was due.
The purpose of asking for an example of that coin then leads to a logical question in return (not asked), for the Pharisees disciples to answer: “What did Moses say the children of God owed in taxes to the Temple, so tax-exempt priests, scribes, and their legal advisers could have beautified office space there at the expense of the ordinary Jews, with no costs passed onto them?”
It was hypocritical to ask about the Law of Moses being applied to any worldly tax or material cost.
We then read that Jesus asked, after receiving a Roman denarius, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” That was not simply a question about who Tiberius was (or Augustus, if a coin that had been left over from the previous emperor’s minting). It was a jab at the rules of the very people who oversaw the Temple, and sent their disciples to ask an asinine question. The Temple of Jerusalem was deemed a sacred place that Romans needed to be very careful about how they acted when within those walls. If Romans had to tread lightly, the Jews were most certainly expected to be reverent there.
The first ruler of Judea, after Herod the Great’s death, was Herod Archelaus. He killed over 40 Jews who took down and chopped to pieces a golden eagle that had been placed over the Temple entrance. It had been ordered placed there by Herod the Great, just before his death. In response to that action by a mob of Jews, Archelaus ordered troops kill two Rabbis and 40 zealots. Their actions were because they saw that foreign image as blasphemous. Archelaus even cancelled Passover and dismissed a high priest, due to the sedition that arose over his actions.
Rome would remove this son of Herod the Great and send him into retirement exile in southern France. His replacement was a Roman governor (which Pontius Pilate was later to be one), who were ordered not to make the natives restless. Therefore, Jesus was pointing out that history of Jewish sedition in the past; and now here was a blasphemous coin with the graven image of a Roman ruler, on the same sacred grounds.
The simple answer given to Jesus was, “[Um. That is] The emperor’s [graven image].”
<cue the sound of crickets chirping>
The emperor? Of Rome? Wasn’t he the one who had standards with golden eagles on them? A graven image of a Roman emperor is on this coin … here?
No one was up in arms over that sacrilege. The Jews there that day were cool with the idea of Roman emperors.
So, what was the big deal about paying a tax to the Roman owner of their land?
When Jesus saw no outburst of unrest caused by the presence of an image of the ruler of the land previously possessed by Israelites (centuries prior), the unspoken answer to the question about the lawfulness of taxes paid to the empereur-du-jour of Rome was: “Moses did not receive any Laws from God about tributes made to kings, emperors, or any other kind of custodian of the physical world.”
God was not concerned with how many things one should have, or how much one should charge for legal advice. I doubt God would even send His blessing to modern Israel, even if that theft of land is said to be stolen in the name of God.
God’s only reason for choosing a groups of descendants of Abraham (a truly righteous dude), a lineage passed on through Isaac and Jacob, was to groom those descendants to serve only God. All the laws were then designed to slap the hands of any who tried to have more than God allowed, based on need alone.
The sole responsibility of God’s servants was (eventually, through Jesus of Nazareth and the Holy Spirit) to lead disciples away from a dependency on human rulers and to God as their only King. This, obviously, was why Jesus then told the crowd, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Within a week, Jesus would be dead, nailed to a tree by Roman hands. At the time of his death, an earthquake would split open the rock that entombed buried Saints, and the curtain that kept the Holy of Holies private, for God to live in that chamber, it was split in two, from top to bottom. A few decades later, the Roman tore down the Second Temple.
God has no use for material things. He left that building forever. Let the Romans have the property. Let the Jews pay them as their debt to the One God they serve.
The souls, on the other hand, no physical body can hold onto one for longer than a matter of decades. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust is all about paying the earth its due. The soul is forever the possession of God, whether it turns away from God for things, or faces God in servitude. Thus, the “amazing” effect Jesus had on legal beagles was his words resonated within them as if God Himself touched their hearts and they knew the truth had been spoken to them, saying “Give … to God the things that are God’s.”
As always, Christians today need to be more than disciples of Pharisees, who “left [Jesus] and went away.” The Big Brain of the Twenty-first century says, “You told them Jesus, ole boy! Hooray for us!” Unfortunately, anyone who sees him or herself as separate from Jesus can never speak as Jesus. God wants more who will be Jesus and speak words like Jesus spoke. Christ wants more who will be led like Jesus.
The problem is so many people ARE THE PHARISEES. People calling themselves “Christian” are little more than the disciples of the Pharisees, hypocritically pretending to do good things for God and Christ, while keeping things to themselves. People today want to keep as much precious metals as they can get their hands on, so they try to entrap Jesus’ words.
Christians look for Scriptural justifications for cheating on their income tax returns. Some so-called ministers [those in concrete buildings with neon lights on the outside and stadium seating on the inside, with cup holders on chair arms rather than places for prayer books on pew backs, and a stage with a dancing choir and a live band playing while clapping audiences follow-the-bouncing-ball big screen monitors is the scene, rather an altar, organ, and song books] they preach that what Jesus said means he wants to make you cash rich!
Even the priest who preaches a sermon that places guilt on the shoulders of a congregation to give one’s fair share to the church, rather than everyone in the congregation already being all in … that is a remodeling of the Second Temple, in the Twenty-first century. Tithing becomes a Temple Tax that never goes away. It places more value on material things than on an honored pledge of spiritual ministry. That was what was wrong then; and that is what is wrong still.
Every Christian should be amazed reading or hearing read, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” To paraphrase that: “Give therefore to the world the things that are of the world, and to God your whole heart and soul.”