Lexegete ™ | Year A | Matthew
TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
October 19, 2008 (Lectionary 29)
Psalm 96:1-9 [10-13] (7)
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Psalm 99 (5)
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
1a. CONTEXT: Matthew 22:15-22
All the evangelists (See also Mark 12:13-17 and Luke 20:20-26)
provide a dramatic political context for Jesus' saying, "Render to Caesar..."
(v. 21) by setting this passage during Jesus' final week in Jerusalem.
Presumably the Jewish authorities do not arrest him while he is teaching
because to do so could cause a riot; better to take him, as they eventually
do, at night. If, however, the crowds could be won away from him, Jesus
would be entirely at their mercy. Those authorities, therefore, seek
either to alienate Jesus from his popular following or provoke him into
making statements that would brand him as an immediate threat to the
Paying taxes, besides being onerous (the provinces of Judea and
Syria pleaded for relief from the tribute in A.D. 17 on grounds of fiscal
exhaustion) represented acceptance of Roman rule. The Jewish
authorities, who owed their position to the Romans, supported paying
them. The Zealots opposed paying taxes, following the tradition of Judas
the Galilaean, a rebel, who in A.D. 6, urged the Jews not to pay tribute to
the Romans or to acknowlege any mortal masters. The utterly dispicable
reputation of tax collectors, whom Jesus himself, in a passage shortly
before this one, mentions in the same breath with harlots (Matt: 21:32),
shows how intensely the people hated the Roman tax. Most people paid the
taxes out of necessity, but we may presume that they favored the Zealot
position and would consider Jesus a mere temporizer if he advocated
Any interpretation of the saying must take seriously the context
the evangelists provide for it in a deadly political game. In that context,
what caused Jesus' interlocutors to marvel (v. 22), is not its intrinsic
wisdom, the but fact that it finesses a tricky question, turning it back on
those who ask it. In this regard, it is like Jesus' answer to the question
about the resurrection in the scene that follows (Matt. 22:23-33). Shortly
before, we find Jesus himself effectively posing such a question when he
asks the religious authorities to say where John the Baptist received his
authority (Matt> 21:23; see also Paul's manoeuvre in Acts 23:6-10).
Traditionally, v. 21 has been interpreted in terms of a dualistic
understanding of human identity. Origen allegorized Jesus' saying as
advice to give the body (the realm of Caesar) its due even as one dedicated
the spirit to God. This fateful distinction underlies Luther's highly
influential interpretation of "Render to Caesar": "The soul is not under the
authority of Caesar; he can neither teach it nor guide it, neither kill it nor
give it life, neither bind it nor loose it, neither judge it nor condemn it,
neither hold it fast nor release it. All this he would have to do, had he the
authority to command it and impose laws upon it. But with respect to the
body, property, and honor he has indeed to do these things, for such
matters are under his authority." (LUTHER'S WORKS, 46:111)
For Luther, the state is God's provision for earthly order. As such,
it can legitimately demand submission in all temporal matters.
Christians, whom Luther envisions, in terms of his own historical
situation, as free citizens rather than as oppressed subjects of foreign
domination, should actively support the state.
Luther's interpretation, in which Jesus is assigning the state
authority in secular matters and God authority in spiritual matters, was,
until fairly recently, taken for granted as the plain sense of the passage.
This is no longer so; modern interpreters recognize that Jesus does not say
where Caesar's legitimate rights stop and God's begin. In 1956 J. Spencer
Kennard argued that Jesus cleverly sidestepped the issue of paying tribute,
leaving his followers infer that they should NOT pay it. Most modern
interpreters find Kennard's argument unpersuasive but agree with him that
"Jesus' answer did not imply any dualism between material and spiritual
values." (J. Spencer Kennard, RENDER TO CAESAR, p. 122)
If we wish to find guidance from it, Matthew 22:21 must be seen
in the light of, "We must obey God rather than men," (Acts 6:29) and the
radical judgment on the Roman state in the Revelation to John (cf. Rev.
18), on the one hand, and of, "There is no authority except from God....For
the same reason you must pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of
God, attending to this very thing." (Rom. 13:1,6) and "Be subject for the
Lord's sake to every human institution (1 Peter 1:13), on the other. If, in
the preceding pericope, Matthew is careful to prevent us from identifying
the Kingdom with the church, here he wishes to prevent our identifying it,
in Roman or in Zealot fashion, with the state.
Oscar Cullmann provides a nuanced and pastorally helpful
contemporary interpretaion of the passage: "Jesus' whole position toward
the State is clearly circumscribed, precisely in the duality it entails
throughout. On the one hand, the State is nothing final. On the other, it
has the right to demand what is necessary to its existence--but no more.
Every totalitarian claim of the state is thereby disallowed. And the double
imperative logically follows: on the one hand, do not let the Zealots draw
you into purely political martial action against the existence of th Roman
State; on the other, do not give to the State what belongs to God! In the
background we hear the challenge: if ever the State demands what belongs
to God, if ever it hinders you in the proclamation of the Kingdom of God,
then resist it. The whole leitmotiv of the complex New Testament
attitude toward the State Jesus formulates here in this saying." (Oscar
Cullmann, THE STATE IN THE NEW TESTAMENT, p. 37)
1b. TEXT: Matthew 22:15-22
< Paying Taxes to Caesar >
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words.
16 And they sent
their disciples to him, along with the Herodians,
saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true
and teach the way of God truthfully,
and you do not care about anyone's opinion,
for you arenot swayed by appearances.
 17 Tell us, then, what you think.
Is it lawful to pay taxes to
Caesar, or not?”
18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said,
“Why put me to the test, you
hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.”
And they brought him a denarius.
 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness
and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar's.”
Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar
the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things
that are God's.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled.
And they left him and went away.
 22:16 Greek for you do not look at people's faces
 22:19 A denarius was a day's wage for a laborer
15τοτε πορευθεντες οι φαρισαιοι συμβουλιον ελαβον οπως αυτον
παγιδευσωσιν εν λογω.
16και αποστελλουσιν αυτω τους μαθητας αυτων μετα των
ηρωδιανων λεγοντες, διδασκαλε, οιδαμεν οτι αληθης ει και την οδον
του θεου εν αληθεια διδασκεις, και ου μελει σοι περι ουδενος, ου
γαρ βλεπεις εις προσωπον ανθρωπων.
17ειπε ουν ημιν τι σοι δοκει: εξεστιν δουναι κηνσον καισαρι η ου;
18γνους δε ο ιησους την πονηριαν αυτων ειπεν, τι με πειραζετε,
19επιδειξατε μοι το νομισμα του κηνσου. οι δε προσηνεγκαν αυτω
20και λεγει αυτοις, τινος η εικων αυτη και η επιγραφη;
21λεγουσιν αυτω, καισαρος. τοτε λεγει αυτοις, αποδοτε ουν τα
καισαρος καισαρι και τα του θεου τω θεω.
22και ακουσαντες εθαυμασαν, και αφεντες αυτον απηλθαν.
GreekBible.com -- Online Text:
Novum Testamentum Graece, Nestle-Aland 26th edition
© 1979, Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart;
The Greek New Testament, 3rd edition
© 1975, United Bible Societies, London.
2. ANALYSIS: Matthew 22:15-22
Matthew 22:15 - sumboulion elabon hopos auton pagideusosin in logoi -
Only Matthew explicitly mentions a conspiracy.
22:16 - meta ton Heroidianon - The inclusion of the Herodians, open
supporters of Rome who would immediately report any subversive
statement, makes clear the questioners' hypocrisy. According to Luke,
Jesus was actually accused of "forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar" in
his trial before Pilate (Luke 23:2).
- ou gar blepeis eis prosopon anthropon - On not showing partiality
as a divine attribute see Acts 10:34 and Rom. 2:11.
- exestin dounai kenson - Where Matthew and Mark have kenson,
"tax," Luke has phoros, "tribute," which may have more political overtones.
22:21 - Apodote - Notice that the word Jesus used in his answer, apodote,
"return," differs from dounai, "give," in the question; those who carry about
Caesar's money may as well return it to him.
3. STRATEGY: Matthew 22:15-22
The gospel invites a sermon on the role of Christians as citizens or
the Christian attitude toward the state. The preacher may want to address
current appeals for Christians to exercise tax resistance. Unless we
unthinkingly accept an unwarranted dualism and interpret, "Render to
Caesar," as giving the state blanket authority over temporal affairs, such
appeals must be taken seriously; God demands our first allegiance.
Jesus' response implies that Caesar and God both have legitimate
claims on our allegiance. What is not clear is how those claims are to be
negotiated; Jesus did not spell out what is Caesar's and what is God's, but
we must. This is, perhaps, just as well, since the issue for us is different
from what it was in Jesus' or Luther's day. In our context, Luther's
interpretation of, "Render to Caesar," is as commanding a Christian's
active support of the state as God's means of temporal governance may
have greater relevance for us than it did for him. American Christians are
not simply more or less willing subjects or citizens, but participants in a
democracy in which all ultimately make choices about public policy. A
sermon on, "Render unto Caesar, " could remind churchgoers that the
responsible exercise oftheir franchise in November can be, not simply a
civic duty, but a Christian ministry. Voting may not just be "rendering to
Caesar" but also "rendering to God."
Cullmann, Oscar. THE STATE IN THE NEW TESTAMENT. New York: Charles
Scribner's Sons, 1956.
Kennard, J. Spencer. RENDER TO CAESAR: A STUDY OF THE TRIBUTE
PASSAGE. New York: Oxford University Press, 1950.
Luther, Martin. ON TEMPORAL AUTHORITY, tr. by J.J. Schindel, rev. by
Walther J. Brandt in LUTHER'S WORKS 46.
Exegete: Joseph W. Trigg is Rector of Christ Church Episcopal in La Plata,
MD (firstname.lastname@example.org). He is an expert on Origen, and author of Origen: The Early
Church Fathers (Routledge, 1998) and Biblical Interpretation (H.P.A., 1988) and
other writings in Church History.
5. HYMN SUGGESTIONS
ALL PEOPLE THAT ON EARTH DO DWELL (HB 377/8, LBW 245);
BEFORE THE LORD'S ETERNAL THRONE (HB 391, LBW 531,alt. );
O GOD OF EARTH AND ALTAR (HB 591,HB 428);
JUDGE ETERNAL, THRONED IN SPLENDOR (HB 596, HB 418);
FATHER ETERNAL, RULER OF CREATION (LBW 413, HB 573).
Dartmouth, MA 02747-1925