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The Question About Paying Taxes: A Dive Into Matthew 22:15-22 (NRSV-UE)

Updated: Oct 25, 2023


 

Welcome again, dear readers, to another installment in our series that journeys through the Revised Common Lectionary. First, we'd like to extend our apologies for the delay in publishing this week's post. Our writer had the joy of celebrating a marriage, and while love is always worth celebrating, we're excited to jump back into our weekly discussions!


Today's focus brings us to a contentious and ever-relevant topic—the question about paying taxes as explored in Matthew 22:15-22. As Jesus navigates the tricky inquiries of the Pharisees, He leaves us with insights that resonate even today. With an intricate dance between political and spiritual realms, this passage raises important questions about our own dual citizenship in the world and in the Kingdom of God.


In this post, we'll delve into the historical context that shaped this confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees. We'll dissect Jesus' carefully measured response, examine its modern-day implications, and explore how this teaching can guide us in balancing our civic and spiritual responsibilities.


Stay tuned as we unpack this complex but enlightening text. Whether you're a theologian at heart or someone just curious about the interplay between faith and society, there's something here for everyone.


The Question about Paying Taxes Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with 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 Caesar 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, "Caesar's." Then he said to them, "Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's." When they heard this, they were amazed, and they left him and went away. - Matthew 22:15-22 (NRSV-UE)
 

Unveiling the Backdrop: The Intricacies of Matthew 22:15-22


The World of First-Century Palestine

Before we delve into the meat of the text, it's essential to step back and examine the socio-political backdrop of first-century Palestine. Israel was under Roman occupation, and tensions were running high. Taxation was a highly contentious issue. The Roman Empire levied heavy taxes, and the Jewish authorities had their own temple tax. Thus, the question posed to Jesus was not just a theological one, but was deeply entangled with the politics and economics of the time.


A Trap Laid Bare

The Pharisees weren't just casually asking Jesus his opinion. This was a calculated question designed to trap Him. If Jesus advocated not paying the tax, he could be accused of sedition against Rome. If he said to pay it, he risked losing popularity among the Jews who resented Roman rule. Either way, it was a lose-lose situation—or so the Pharisees thought.


The Herodians: An Unlikely Alliance

It's also worth noting who the Pharisees teamed up with to confront Jesus: the Herodians. While the Pharisees and Herodians were usually at odds politically, they found common ground in their opposition to Jesus. This unlikely alliance shows the extent to which Jesus had become a figure who upset the existing social and political structures.

 

The Currency of Wisdom


Jesus' Ingenious Response

The Pharisees and Herodians thought they had trapped Jesus with their question about taxes, but His response demonstrated a masterful blend of wisdom and tact. When asked about paying taxes to Caesar, Jesus requests a denarius, the currency in which the tax would be paid, and asks, "Whose image is this? And whose inscription?" The answer, of course, is Caesar's. Jesus then delivers the line that leaves his questioners speechless: "Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's".


Layers of Meaning

The brilliance of Jesus' answer is that it satisfies the immediate question while leaving room for deeper spiritual interpretation. On the one hand, He acknowledges the practical reality of living under Roman rule, including the payment of taxes. On the other, He invites His audience to consider what belongs to God, subtly raising questions about ultimate loyalty and the nature of divine sovereignty.


Implications for Today

This episode from Matthew's Gospel isn't just a first-century story; it has direct implications for how we navigate our civic duties and spiritual responsibilities today. It calls us to ponder how we balance our roles as citizens of our countries and as citizens of God's Kingdom, urging us to give each its due respect and attention.


 

Ethical Dilemmas & Spiritual Priorities: Navigating Modern Complexities


Religion and Politics: A Tricky Balance

While many of us strive to keep religion and politics separate, Jesus' words in this passage remind us that sometimes they're more intertwined than we'd care to admit. Just as Jesus grappled with questions concerning earthly governance and divine authority, so do we. How do we, as modern followers of Christ, navigate this complex interplay?


From Tithing to Taxes: The Modern Analogy

In our world, questions about taxation might not be as laden with risk of entrapment, but they are still significant. When we pay taxes, we contribute to societal infrastructure, just as when we tithe or donate, we contribute to our spiritual community. Finding the right balance between these two can be a modern reflection of the dilemma presented in Matthew 22:15-22.


Aligning Our Values

Jesus' wisdom in this passage encourages us not to see these as zero-sum games—our earthly responsibilities and our heavenly calling can coexist. The key is alignment. When our actions, whether in the civic or spiritual realm, are aligned with our core values and beliefs, we find harmony.


 

Final Thoughts: Giving to Caesar and to God

As we wrap up our discussion on Matthew 22:15-22, it's clear that the questions posed in this passage are far from trivial or dated. They cut to the core of how we navigate a world filled with both earthly obligations and heavenly aspirations. While times have changed, the wisdom found in Jesus' response to the Pharisees and Herodians remains timeless. It prompts us to consider where our ultimate loyalties lie and how we can reconcile our dual citizenship in both our earthly nation and the Kingdom of God.


As we go about our lives, may we continually reflect on these questions, seeking balance and wisdom in our actions. And may we always remember to give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's.

 


Looking Ahead to Next Saturday: "The Greatest Commandment: Unpacking Matthew 22:34-40"

As we conclude today's exploration, we invite you to join us next Saturday for another enriching installment in our Revised Common Lectionary series. We'll be diving into Matthew 22:34-40, a passage that tackles the profound simplicity of Jesus' teaching on "The Greatest Commandment." It promises to be an enlightening discussion that connects directly to the heart of Christ's teachings and, consequently, to the heart of how we live out our faith.

 


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