This week we continue with the Gospel of Matthew, but we don’t quite have a parable. We do, however, have a teaching from Christ.
Before we turn to the rather famous “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” and what caused Jesus to utter these words, we are presented with a verbal confrontation the Pharisees have with Jesus.
I have often remarked that to understand the parables, we need to understand the culture, the societal dynamics, the history, and the religion that surrounded the historical Jesus. This is also true for his sayings and the situations that created him.
As wonderful and revolutionary as Jesus was, he didn’t go around first-century Palestine with a bullhorn shouting out political slogans. I’m sure the zealots would have liked it if he did, but Jesus wasn’t the type of campaign speeches or rallies. Instead, it usually arose from situations in his personal life and/or his life as a teacher. In many ways, they’re reactionary statements as they are said within a historical context and said in reaction to sly words, accusations, and traps.
That, however, doesn’t make them any less true or any less profound.
But what was obvious in the context of when Jesus said these words will often elude modern audiences. We don’t have the basic knowledge, we don’t have the cultural prejudices, we speak an entirely different language with different phrases (and translations can only do so much).
So, first, let’s take a step back to where and when Jesus was and go from there to understand the brilliance (and often revolutionary) statements Jesus made as if they were completely obvious – or at least should be.
A Deconstruction of the Scene
To set the stage, we have Jesus two thousand years ago. However, he did not exist in a vacuum. We know this as he is often speaking with his disciples or to his followers.
In this particular instance, the Pharisees and the Herodians are seeking him out and we know from the Gospel of Matthew that they are doing so with malice.
The Pharisees, if you remember, were holy men – specifically, they were men (yes, just men, never women or children) who followed the laws of the Hebrew Bible strictly and were revered for their piety. There are 613 laws in what we call the Old Testament (the first ten of which are known as the Ten Commandments – for more on that particular subject, you can (re)watch the zoom worship service entitled “The Ten Ultimatums”). The Jewish people, at the time of Jesus, were required by their religion to follow all 613. These laws can be strict, they are often difficult, and very few people could follow them perfectly. So, the Pharisees who did follow God’s laws perfectly when few others could held an elevated place in society.
Unfortunately, this praise and elevated status often went to the heads of various Pharisees.
When Jesus came along and said that there were only two laws (to love God and to love your neighbor) and God’s Chosen People didn’t have to follow the 611 other laws as they were irrelevant, many Pharisees felt threatened, and quite rightly.
Jesus had the potential of putting them out of a job.
Worse than that, Jesus was attacking their position in Israel. These men were sanctimonious and pretentious and their entire way of life was being threatened. If the laws were unimportant, then the Pharisees could not consider themselves better than anyone else.
They would no longer be better than the puppet king of Israel (who had an impure bloodline). They would no longer be better than the Romans (who, although occupiers, were gentiles). They also would be no better than any other Jewish man – including an upstart carpenter from Galilee.
The Pharisees saw Jesus as a threat so they wanted to entrap him. If Jesus said something against Rome, he could be arrested and punished. If he said something in favor of Rome, however, then he would lose the love of the people. They wanted to put Jesus between a “rock and a hard place” and let him “hang himself with his own rope,” to borrow two common expressions in English.
In this particular passage, the Pharisees send their disciples – or students – men who desperately wanted to achieve the position and the acknowledged piety of the Pharisees. Remember that not only Jesus had disciples. He was not the only “teacher” – but he is certainly the one whose message had a lasting impact on the world.
A Note on the Herodians
The Pharisees in this particular passage are not alone in their questioning of Jesus. For support they send their disciples with the Herodians.
Who were the Herodians?
Easy: they were followers of the Herods, or (more specifically) Herod Antipas’s hangers on.
Herod Antipas was a puppet king, placed into power by the Romans. And, although the New Testament often calls him “King Herod,” he wasn’t actually a king at all. He ruled the client state of Israel and any power he came not from God or the High Priest, but from foreign invaders. He didn’t even have the official title of “king.” Herod Antipas was, also, of Samarian origin … which meant he wasn’t ethnically pure.
He was an imposter.
He was a fraud.
He didn’t remotely follow all of God’s 613 laws if he followed any (he was known for decadence, married his brother’s wife, and gave a girl John the Baptist’s head on a platter because he liked the way she danced even though she was both his stepdaughter and his niece).
Herod Antipas had no moral, ethnic, or even historical right to his power or his throne, such as it was.
His followers – or the Herodians – were Hellenized to the extreme (preferring Greek culture and customs to the Jewish traditions). They were undoubtedly decadent, ethnically suspect, and power-hungry.
This is Not a Marriage of True Minds
So why would they have remotely been in each other’s company? Why would the self-righteous Pharisees who prided themselves on being as perfectly Jewish as possible even be in the company of the licentious Herodians?
Their very natures should make the two groups despise each other.
They would have different religions (or levels of observance at the very least). They would have different visions for Israel (if the Herodians looked toward the future at all). They would have different mindsets from how to clip their toenails to how they should get into a good version of the afterlife and everything in between.
One thing they did have in common was that they wanted their comfortable lifestyles to continue – and they both agreed that Jesus was a threat to their secure (though diametrically different) ways of life.
The Pharisees and the Herodians were also both pragmatic enough to realize that working together for a similar goal would be beneficial in the short term.
And so our passage in Matthew begins with a rather unholy alliance.
A Trap Well Set
The trick to a really good trap is to make sure that the person you are trapping (in this case Jesus) does not suspect the trap in the least.
The disciples of the Pharisees and Herodians attempt to do this by being deferential. They wanted to put Jesus off guard. They acknowledged his wisdom (and attempted to play into his vanity) by calling him “teacher” and by asking his advice.
However, their purpose was to trap him.
What was the trap?
The trap was a coin.
Jesus was asked whether or not Israel and the Jewish people should pay taxes to the Emperor of Rome – Caesar Augustus.
If Jesus said “yes, pay the taxes,” his followers and fellow Jewish people would be incensed and he would lose all credibility. He would be Rome’s man – a puppet like Herod Antipas or a “yes man,” as it were.
The Pharisees would have the moral high ground.
If Jesus said, “no, don’t pay your taxes” – well, he would be inciting rebellion. He would prove himself to be a “Son of Israel” but at what cost? Perhaps the Roman governor (a man by the name of Pontius Pilate) would disappear him into the night? He could be arrested, surely, as inciting rebellion was a crime. If Jesus managed to evade capture, he’d be on the run in the hills around Jerusalem and a revolutionary who could be killed on sight.
The Pharisees would certainly like that. Jesus would be an outlier, an outlaw, and on the outside of their well-built world.
The Herodians (in either situation) would probably just enjoy the show for entertainment value.
This was the “rock and the hard place,” or the catch-22. There is no right answer, that is the beauty of the question. You can dress it up as nicely as you like, bow to Jesus, call him “teacher,” even kiss his hand (though that didn’t happen), but if Jesus answered then his reputation is destroyed one way or the other.
If he didn’t answer, well, I’m sure political commentators of the day would have called him out on it and pointed out that he had no spine (at the very least). Insults surely would have followed from various points of attack.
Jesus, however, did have a spine — and answered the question
Jesus, when given this question, was clever. He had someone take out a coin and look at it – and what they saw was the face of Caesar Augustus – foreign ruler and self-proclaimed god.
Now, unlike whoever pulled out that coin two thousand years ago, I rarely carry cash as I use my credit card or google pay for almost everything in my life (yes, I admit it). I get excited when I find a spare dollar bill and then forget I even have it – because I just don’t use cash. A quarter? I’d be hard pressed to find one.
However, I know what one looks like. A quarter has George Washington’s face on one side and on the other the seal of whatever state it was minted in. But there are more coins than just quarters in the US of A …
So, if you take out a coin wherever you are, take a moment to look at it.
If you are in the United States of America, you’ll find the profile of a past President or important American historical figure. The quarter, as I mentioned, has George Washington, the first American president. If you’re in a country with a monarch (or collect coins from such countries), you will most likely find the profile of the king or the queen regnant.
Now, the reason why almost all countries do this is because Rome did it and the idea caught on even after the empire fell. Caesar Augustus (who was Emperor of Rome during Jesus’s lifetime) stamped his face on every coin that could be used freely and without question. It was a method of standardization. A denarius was a denarius throughout the entire civilized world. It could not be refuted. It had a set value. It could never be denied (as long as it passed the ‘biting test’ to check if it was made of actual silver).
This standardization was also a really easy way to collect taxes from a vast empire.
Now, Caesar Augustus didn’t come up with this idea, nor did Rome. Augustus, however, was the first emperor and he used this method of standardization (and self promotion) so effectively, that most countries employ the same idea two thousand years later.
We know from the Gospels that Israel had its own coins – mainly shekels – but the denarius was the standard throughout the empire. It was what you used in the Hellenized markets. It was what you used in any market, actually. It was a day’s wage to the common man. It was life’s blood in a little coin that had a foreign man’s face on it.
Unlike the quarter you may (or may not) be looking at, it was precious and had great value. It was not something to be misplaced. It had true worth and could make or break a family even in the best circumstances.
When a man had to pay taxes to Rome, it would be painful for him to give up the required denarii.
He would rightly feel that Rome did not deserve it.
Rome – after all – was a foreign power.
Rome occupied Israel.
Although Rome allowed the Temple to stand and allowed the Jewish people their religion (they were singular in that respect as all other occupied territories were required to worship the Emperor as a god) … Rome spat upon Jewish traditions and the sacred history of Jerusalem.
Rome’s violence and subjugation of Israel cannot be overstated.
It was a constant humiliation, a constant insult, a constant degradation.
To see Caesar’s face on the denarius day in and day out would be a physical pain to the Jewish man, woman, or child who carried it.
What Jesus Didn’t Have to Say
Now, Jesus saw this coin and most likely felt all of these emotions when he looked at it.
He knew the worth.
He was the son of a carpenter.
His father – Joseph – would have most likely been paid in goods or goodwill. The denarius would have been rare and precious.
I imagine that even the grown Jesus would remember the familiar sting of all that the denarius meant. Jesus would know firsthand how precious each coin was, how each denarius was saved and counted to pay taxes to the hated Roman Empire.
But Jesus does not acknowledge this verbally.
He knows this feeling. He knows that everyone around him – even the Herodians and the disciples of the Pharisees – have known or at least witnessed this humiliation and this emotional hurt year … after year … after year of occupation.
Jesus doesn’t need to say it … but this feeling, this sense, this shared national emotion is often lost through history and through translation.
He looked at this coin, saw the face of Caesar, and stated something unprecedented – revolutionary – and utterly baffling.
If it has Caesar’s face – doesn’t this coin ultimately belong to him?
And give what belongs clearly to God to God.
Jesus stunned everyone to silence.
What this Means in a Nutshell
Jesus – in his simple statement – reminds us that we are citizens of both earth and of God’s country. There are earthly matters (the denarius) and heavenly (the soul, living a good and moral life, &c.). The basic message is: don’t get so wrapped up in one that you forget the other.
We live here in and around Florence, Massachusetts, but we also have a spiritual life that transcends that.
We should want to make the world a better place (whatever this means to you, and I leave that to you to decide), and we should never neglect that. We should and must honor our obligations here … to our family, to our community, to our planet.
We should also want to perfect our spiritual health and give God the love and devotion he deserves and never forget that for our more earthly concerns, no matter how pressing and serious they become.
It can (and often is) a fine line between the earthly and the spiritual. To neglect one is to disservice to the other.
But God can and will give us strength in both this life and the next.
Don’t get too focused on heaven that you let the world tear itself apart around you.
Likewise, don’t focus on the minutia of your earthly life so that you forget God and forget to love and forgive those around you.