A Trap Question

October 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

Jeannine Brown’s commentary on Matthew 22:15-22 when the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus with a difficult question on whether it is right to pay taxes to Caesar or not:

“The key interpretive issue of this passage rests in the meaning of this statement (‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s’ – 22:21). The first clause on its own indicates that the tax should be paid, since the emperor’s image and inscription on the coin would cause it to fall under ‘things that are the emperor’s.’ On the other hand, the final clause places a question mark on what belongs to whom! Given Jesus’ repeated use of the Old Testament highlighted throughout Matthew and his preaching of the arrival of God’s kingdom, it is difficult to imagine that Jesus would see much of anything falling outside of ‘the things that are God’s’ (see Psalm 24:1— ‘The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.’).

The beauty of Jesus’ answer is that he both concedes payment of the census tax while subverting the reach of the emperor. If read one way, Jesus’ answer is simply an affirmation of Christian submission to governing authorities. Yet if read from another angle, Jesus affirms the all encompassing reach of God’s ownership in a way that relativizes imperial claims of right to rule. The denarius which Jesus called his questioners to produce read ‘Tiberius Caesar, August Son of the Divine Augustus’ on one side and ‘Pontifex Maximus’ (high priest) on the other. Into the reverberation of such all encompassing and even idolatrous claims, Jesus here reasserts God’s ownership and rule.”

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