Matthew 22:15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him 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. Matthew 22:15-22

Not long after President Trump took office he had a new presidential challenge coin struck in his own honor. That isn’t unusual. It turns out that people do that. The surprise was how different it was than his predecessors. It was bigger. Thicker. More golden. The national motto was replaced with his campaign slogan.

Unlike modern challenge coins, which are intended to be personal gifts, souvenirs, the coins struck with the image of the Roman emperor were legal tender throughout the empire. They were symbols of the emperor’s power, and yes, of his ego. In Jesus’ day, emperors expected to be worshipped, not just obeyed. They claimed divinity, not just political power. In the years before Jesus, Julius Caesar was not just the civil authority, he was Pontifex Maximus, the chief priest of the Roman state religion.

All of that, for Jews, constituted idolatry of the most blatant and repulsive type. That is why the coinage of the empire was not allowed to be used in the temple. The money changers sat at their tables, converting Roman money into temple money that could then be used to purchase sacrificial animals. It was a system saturated with graft and corruption. It literally turned the temple into a central bank.

The irony in this story of the Pharisees and their question about paying taxes is that they just happen to have a denarius with them. Jesus doesn’t. A single denarius wasn’t worth much, basically the daily wage of a laborer, but the symbolism was far more important. The Pharisees were participating in the idolatrous Roman economy in a way that Jesus wasn’t. Once again, the charges that the Pharisees brought against Jesus condemned themselves, not Jesus.

Thus this story isn’t about paying taxes, it is about idolatry. It is about devotion. Who gets our hearts and minds? Worldly powers and authorities or God? Who brings peace, who is the source of justice, who will we lay down our lives for? The emperor or God?

Notice that Jesus doesn’t reject some level of authority to the emperor. He recognizes that the emperor has a place in God’s rule. People can’t live without some level of coordination and cooperation. Sinful people can’t live without some degree of rules and regulations that level the playing field of life. People need some way of sorting that all out.

But make no mistake, idolatry is idolatry. Today, with April 15th looming ahead, Jesus reminds us that the ultimate authority of our lives is not an office taken with force or freely elected. The ultimate authority over our lives is God.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, you have our hearts, our souls, our minds, our strength. In you we find our lives. In your will we find our purpose, to serve our neighbor, to do our part. Save us from the idolatrous allure of money and power and position and prestige. Guide the thoughts and actions of those given positions of authority in our lives, that justice might be their goal, and integrity their path. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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One Response to “Matthew 22:15-22”

  1. Carolee Groux Says:

    Lord keep us from idolatry and the worship of false gods. May our devotion and loyalty be only to God. We pray for our nation’s leaders, for their integrity and service to country. God bless them and lead them in the path of righteousness. Amen.

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