Matthew 22:15-22 – Give back unto Caesar

Updated: Jan 28

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.


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This is the Gospel reading assigned by the Episcopal lectionary for public presentation during the Ordinary season after Pentecost, numbered ordinally in their Year A as Proper 24.  This will next be read aloud by a priest on Sunday, October 18, 202, which will be the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost.


The simplest meaning of this reading is easy to discern.  There is nothing a human being owns, possesses or physically has that is of any concern to God.  The only thing a human being has that God expects returned to him is a soul.  Thus, Jesus set the expectation for all who claim to be devoted to God [YHWH]: God wants His soul back.


Of course, things are never as simple as they seem.


First off, Jesus was not speaking to Romans or anyone of pagan roots.  We read “The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus” and “So they sent out their disciples, along with the Herodians.”  From all that information, it is safe to say that Jesus was speaking to Jews; and, Jews considered themselves God’s chosen people.  In that sense, Jesus was not telling pagans they owed their souls to Yahweh.  He as telling that to priests that supposedly knew that already.


Second, the issue of paying a tax becomes important.  This was not something that came up haphazardly, as the leaders of Herod’s Temple [the Herodians were a sect that sided against the Pharisees and with the Sadducees] saw the taxes they paid to Caesar as taking away from their bottom line.  They most certainly would have contemplated getting out of paying that tax [after all they were lawyers, thus masters of deception], only to have some Roman boots come down on their Jewish necks, leading them to understand the tax to Rome is non-negotiable.  They had to pay something. 


Because the leaders of the Temple accepted that fact of life, they then made executive business decisions and added more tax burdens on the normal Jews.  That was the typical follower of Jesus.  The Pharisees (et al) figured Jesus would defend the poor Jews who had not only the weight of Rome on their shoulders, but also the weight of the Temple.  If Jesus was like those leaders of Jews (he was not), then they expected him to look for any way possible to save money and stay out of the poor house.


Now, it must be realized that Jesus was not just some really smart, quick-witted Jew.  He was exemplary what he told the “counsel” of plotters to do, who were amazed with that statement when they went away.  Jesus was a body of flesh, whose soul had been completely given to God [from before birth].  That means the soul of Jesus was married to the Holy Spirit of God.  From that union, the Christ Mind was how Jesus was so fast to give the right answer every time.  Jesus talked with God directly and God [being omniscient] knew all about how much the Temple clan loved their money … every denarius of it … and God knew [perhaps influenced them?] they would try to entrap Jesus with a tax question.


As far as the coin Jesus asked the counsel of plotters about, the Temple had its own coins in its treasury.  The Herodians would have known the Temple tax paid by all Jews was expected to be paid in half-shekels.  Some featured the face of Herod the Great, but by the time Jesus was answering their question, coins existed that featured Herod Antipas’ likeness.  While those were primarily silver coins, the Romans expected their payments to be converted into Roman coins, which featured Caesar.  Thus, the tax in question was not about what Jews owed for being Jewish, but what the Temple owed Rome for being allowed to exist; so “they brought him a denarius,” a Roman coin.


Relative to this, it becomes worthwhile to read what is written in Matthew 17:24-27.  There, Peter was approached by a tax collector and asked, “Doesn’t your master pay the temple tax?”  That was a two-drachma (“didrachma“) tax that the tax collectors got rich from collecting from the Jews [and thus tax collectors were hated for that].  After Peter went into the house of Jesus, Jesus asked him this question: “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?”  The answer was “others,” leading Jesus to say, “Then the children are exempt.”  That says the children of God owe no physical tax to Him; but, Jesus then told Peter to go catch a fish and look in its mouth.  There a four-drachma coin would be found, which would then be used to pay his and Jesus’ temple tax.


In that recount in Matthew’s Gospel, it is easy to hear Jesus tell Peter, “Go fish,” and assume that means he did as Jesus said and took the boat out on the Sea of Galilee, where he caught a net full of fish.  They even call a tilapia Saint Peter’s fish because that was likely what he would have caught there. 


That means a miracle happened when Peter took the first fish he caught, opened it mouth and found a four-drachma silver coin.  The reality is this: Jesus told his disciples who had been fishermen, “I will make you fishers of men.”  Thus, “Go fish” meant, “Go find another Jew who wants to serve God.”  It was then from that “mouth” that came such a coin; this was how the ministry of Jesus was supported through donations (requiring Judas be the treasurer).  Quite possibly, Peter ran and converted the tax collector and he was so thrilled he gave him the coin, along with words of thanks from his mouth.


By seeing that, it makes it easier for one to understand the scope of meaning behind Jesus saying, “Give back therefore all of Caesar to Caesar” (from the Greek “Apodote oun ta Kaisaros Kaisari “).  Besides seeing how poorly those words are translated by the Episcopal Church’s lectionary translation is [it is not the NASB or NIV], it is important to realize there are three capitalized words out of five words written.  Capitalization is unimportant to normal human beings, but in divine Scripture it is presented by God’s servants for a divine purpose.


In that regard, the capitalized Greek word “Apodote” importantly states more than presenting a gift, as the word “give” might imply.  It is a form of the root verb “apodidómi,” which means “to give up, give back, return, restore.” (Strong’s definition)  The implication is then (importantly stated) a statement saying, “What one has been given, one should give back all that is asked in return.”  The fact that Caesar’s image was stamped into precious metal says, “This coin is the property of Caesar, Emperor of the Roman Empire.”  If Caesar deems one of his empire owes him back, then one pays back what one owes.


This is then found stated (importantly) in the capitalized words “Kaisaros Kaisari.”  This is the genitive (possessive) noun followed by a complimentary noun, stating “of – to.”  The capitalization is then addressing the all-powerful title of “Caesar.”  The Emperor of Rome was a human god, one who owned not only all the precious metals of that empire, but everything and everyone within that realm of authority.  If Caesar gave an order, “Conscript soldiers and fight a war,” there was no one who could say, “No.”  Thus, the power of “of Caesar to Caesar” says refusal to honor the emperor’s command meant severe punishment.


The counsel of the Temple all stood in awe of the emperor of Rome.  Whatever Caesar said pay they paid.  They knew it was useless to try and buck that system, so they did as the almighty Caesar said to do.  They had plotted to kill Jesus and hoped this trick question would get them some evidence to go running to Pilate and squeal, “Jesus said not to pay the tax to Rome!”  However, God prepared Jesus to tell them, “Give everything that has made you wealthy men of the Temple back to Caesar.”


That is like Jesus knowing the Temple counsel had all sold their souls for a piece of the Roman Empire’s wealth.  As such, God spoke through Jesus telling them, “Buy back your souls from Caesar, so you can still have a soul to give back to me before you die.”


The Jewish leaders “were amazed” because what Jesus then said about giving to God what is God’s made a cold chill run down their backs (where normal people have spines).  The Greek word translated as “they were amazed” is “ethaumasan.”  While that can be one translation, HELPS Word-studies says this about the root verb: “thaumázō (from 2295 /thaúma, “a wonder, marvel”) – properly, wonder at, be amazed (marvel), i.e. astonished out of one’s senses; awestruck, “wondering very greatly” (Souter); to cause “wonder; . . . to regard with amazement, and with a suggestion of beginning to speculate on the matter”‘  It was a state of wonderment based on them realizing for the first time that they were anything but beholden to God, because if they were, then they owed an awful lot of back-taxes.


Those lying bags of dirt [euphemism for “bodies of flesh”] had just recently put on their finest “I am pious” robes and waltzed up to Jesus, 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.” 


Not a one of them thought Jesus was a “Teacher” (from the capitalized “Didaskale“), especially since they were “disciples” of the Temple elite and had never been taught anything of merit about divine Scripture (the importance of capitalization here).  They lied when they said they knew Jesus was “sincere,” as the Greek word written (“alēthēs“) is a statement about one who speaks the “truth.”  They could not recognize the truth because they were too busy lying to see it with their own eyes.


Everyone of them knew that Jesus whipped them verbally every time they had encounters like this, because they were so blatantly evil-centered.  Some, undoubtedly, had seen Jesus overturn vendor tables at the same place they then stood, so they knew Jesus attacked those led by Satan whenever he saw evil raise its ugly head.  They were the ones who turned the pious cheek to those who called them out for being poor examples of God’s children and worse leaders of religious principles (like Jesus did), so they regularly walked away from confrontations … only to plot some retribution privately.


The words they had used to coax Jesus into their snare was then ringing in their ears as they walked away from Jesus, after he said, “Give back that of God to God.”  They must have realized their souls were more owned by Caesar than the God they swore by.

Certainly, this short Gospel reading is easy to see the meaning of, in terms of way back when.  Christians love to laugh and slap each other on the back, giving Jesus an imaginary fist bump, as if saying, “You told them Jesus!”  The sad fact is most Christians cannot see themselves in this Gospel story.


How many Christians pay homage to Jesus with platitudes, but then they turn around and sin?  In the last three generations (sixty years – since 1960), the Christians world has transformed greatly, away from the ways of the past.  The advent of technology has certainly aided the mindset that believes in the philosophy saying, “Progress shows up as change.”  This has happened so often in that past that change has restructured everything as a result.  Children of children’s children now believe, “If it once stood firm, it must be wrong, so tear it down and do the opposite.” 


The changes are way too many to list, but one clear change has been away from the ‘fire and brimstone’ preachers who tried to strike fear into the hearts of Christians so they would do good.  We now have community organizers and political hacks entering seminaries and being ordained as priests and ministers of flocks that are too busy texting to hear a sermon, much less care about any opinions on Scripture they might hear.  At least, not enough for that to have any positive effect. 


Christians have become the disciples of system that plots to overturn everything Jesus stood for.  The children of children who never knew Christianity the way it was now say to Jesus, “We know you defer to no one; for you are not partial to any; therefore, we can speak for you and say everyone is welcome in the Church, no matter how vile and repulsive they are.”


The churches of Christianity ask, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the State, or not?”  But, the churches are not those of your grandparents.  The laws that kept churches exempt from taxation are now used to make anything with more than four people involved be declared a “religion,” simply to keep from paying taxes.  Cults spring up like mushrooms.  The third generation of children would much rather join a commune and worship some Eastern guru, rather than go to a church and find any form of restriction of lifestyle. 


While the media flaunts ridicule at organized religion [blame a lot of that on the Church of Rome and its endorsement of pedophile priests], they kneel down and praise the idols of political party.  Propaganda promotes Caesar over God, with Caesar now going by the name of Big Government.  The taxes paid today to the State is what Jesus said was owed to God; but when the soul has already been sold into the physical realm there is nothing left to return to God.


If this message is not seen in this Gospel reading, then there is nothing to gain.  Might as well go fishing on Sunday mornings.

R. T. Tippett

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