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Edward F. Markquart

Series A
Gospel Analysis: Paying Taxes to Caesar

Pentecost 22     Matthew 22:15-20

Pastor Edward F. Markquart
Grace Lutheran Church
Des Moines, Washington 98198

The following Bible study is from a larger course entitled THE LIFE OF CHRIST: A Study in the Four Gospels. This 54 week course for the laity will be available for congregations in 2006.

Basic text for the course: SYNOPSIS OF THE FOUR GOSPELS, Kurt Aland, English Edition, P. 245.



  • After the cleansing of the temple, there are several consecutive stories against the religious leadership. (SYNOPSIS OF THE GOSPELS, Aland, pp. 237-253))

      The religious leadership consisted of the Pharisees, Sadducees, chief priests, scribes and others in authority.

  • Jesus curses the fig tree.
  • The chief priests and scribes seek to destroy him.
  • The fig tree is withered (symbolic of the Pharisees)
  • Jesus teaches in the temple with authority and challenges the Pharisees.
  • Jesus tells the parable of the wicked tenants (Pharisees) who killed the servants (prophets) and also the Son (Jesus) of the owner. Jesus teaches that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you (Pharisees) and given to people who produce the fruit of it (the tax collectors and prostitutes).” When the Pharisees heard these two parables (the two sons and the wicked tenants), they tried to arrest Jesus.
  • Jesus tells the parable of the Marriage Feast where people offered flimsy excuses not to come.
  • The Pharisees seek to entangle him in a debate about not paying taxes.
  • The Sadducees try to entangle him in a debate about the resurrection. 
  • A lawyer of the Pharisees try to entangle him in a debate about the great commandment.
  • The Pharisees seek to entangle him in a debate about the Messiah and his origins.
  • Jesus teaches his disciples about the phoniness of the Pharisees (Matthew 23).
  • Jesus’ laments over Jerusalem. 
  • We remember that Sessions 18-20 in the course LIFE OF CHRIST were also teachings against the Pharisees who represented the leadership of the temple.
  • We remember that these religious leaders:

-Loved their religious traditions more than God and neighbor. -Loved their interpretations of the Old Testament more than God and neighbor.

-Loved their money more than God and neighbor.

            -Loved their political power more than God and neighbor.

            -Loved their religious power more than God and neighbor.           

           - Talked a good line but did not live it.

            -Were the epitome of hypocrisy.

            -Were blind to God, God’s love, God’s Word, God’s truth, and God’s Son.

Each individual section needs to be read as part of the whole section. The teachings in this section are persistently against the religious leadership e.g.
the Pharisees perceived that Jesus told this parable against them.

We recall the parable/teaching of The Fig Tree. For Jesus, the barren fig tree was leafy but had no fruit. The barren fig tree symbolized the Jewish religious leadership of Jesus’ day. These religious leaders talked a good religious talk and used all the right “buzz words” and clichés but did not put their words into actions in their daily lives. The fig tree symbolized the Pharisees who appeared healthy and leafy (like a fig tree) but produced no fruit of love.

Today, this fig tree symbolizes any Christian life which talks the talk but does not walk the walk. The apparently healthy fig tree without fruit symbolizes an apparently healthy Christian life that does not produce actions and behaviors that God wants from us. 

The tree looks healthy but it is not. A religious life looks healthy but it is not. A Christian can use all the right buzz words, read the Bible, attend church and do all the churchy things but lives a lie and does not demonstrate the love of Christ in daily actions.

#280.  ON PAYING TRIBUTE TO CAESAR   Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26Notice that this passage is in all three gospels. Both Matthew and Luke copy from the Gospel of Mark almost word for word. Both Matthew and Luke copy not only the words but the sequence or flow of the story for today.

The Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus but failed. Instead, these Pharisees became trapped in their own arguments. They were amazed at Jesus’ clever logic and reasoning with them.

Examine the following sequence of events in this section from the Gospel of Matthew. As you examine at the following sequence, see the numerous entanglements between Jesus and the Pharisees.

*The Pharisees sought to “entangle him” in a debate about paying taxes.

*The Sadducees sought to entangle him in a debate about the resurrection.

*A lawyer from the Pharisees tried to entangle him in a debate about the great commandment.

*The Pharisees sought to entangle him in a debate about the Messiah and his origins.

Today’s text is one of several attempts by the Pharisees to entangle Jesus in a debate. They wanted to trap him, arrest him. Yes, they wanted to kill him.

We recall the hostile atmosphere in which this event was told. We recall that Jesus had just told three stinging parables against the Pharisees (Two Sons where the tax collectors and prostitutes would go into the kingdom of heaven before the Pharisees), the Wicked Tenants (the Pharisees/religious leaders) killed the prophets and the owner’s son, and the Marriage Feast where those initially invited to the banquet (Pharisees/religious leaders) would not taste the banquet. Those were three stinging parables against the Pharisees. We also recall an even earlier parable in this section of Scripture, about the withered fig tree which did not produce any fruit. This withered fig tree was symbolic of the Pharisees and their lack of authenticity and deeds of love towards God and their neighbors.

After these stinging parables against the Pharisees, they come back for more. The following incident is not a parable but an event, a moment in time, an encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees.

-Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. Circle the word “trap” (Mark) and “entangle” (Matthew). The Herodians, we assume but cannot prove, belonged to the official court of King Herod and his descendants. We remember King Herod as the jealous king who arranged for the murders of all boy babies two years and younger, after the time that Jesus of Nazareth was born. The Herodians were a political force of Jewish people but who worked for the Roman government. We remember Herod Antipas, the governor of Galilee. We assume he was a Herodian. 

Matthew’s version states, “Then the Pharisees went and took counsel how to entangle him in his talk. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians.”

-Who pretended to be sincere. (Luke)Highlight this phrase. The Pharisees were the great pretenders, pretending to be authentically religious and also pretending to be sincere as they feigned deference to Jesus’ teachings. In next weeks gospel lesson from Matthew 23, it will focus on the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.

It is amazing that they were pretending to be sincere, even when Jesus had just told three acidic parables against them.

-So as to deliver him up to the authority and the jurisdiction of the governor. (Only Luke). This was the issue: the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders knew that they did not have the power of execution but the Romans did. They wanted to get Jesus before a Roman tribunal so he could be sentenced to death.

-And they came and said to him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. We can smell the false flattery. Talk about “pretending to be sincere.”

-Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?’ Circle the word, “taxes.” We all recall a fundamental inevitability to life:  “Death and taxes.” All people will pay them both.

The question seems innocent but wasn’t. The Pharisees weren’t really interested in whether or not they should pay taxes. The Pharisees knew that they were going to pay their taxes. Down deep in their craw, the Pharisees wanted Jesus to make some verbal mistake and implicate himself as not being fully supportive of the Roman government and Caesar. Down in their heart of hearts, the Pharisees wanted Jesus to tell the people that they could withhold taxes from the hated Roman government which occupied the land of Israel. These phony Pharisees would then accuse Jesus of being “anti-Caesar.” They were trying to get Jesus to withhold his support for the government. They were trying to get Jesus to say that the Jews should not pay taxes and thereby they could accuse him of political disobedience and fomenting political insurrection.

In today’s world, some people refuse to pay taxes as a way of challenging the government on some particular issues.

“Taxes--meaning the poll-tax, payable to the Romans by everyone whose name was in the census. This, therefore, it will be observed, was strictly a civil tax.” Jamieson, Fausset, Brown (1871)

-But knowing their hypocrisy, Circle the word, “hypocrisy.” Whenever the Pharisees are around, the word “hypocrisy” is not far away.

Jesus, then and now, has a way of seeing through hypocrisy.

-He said to them, ‘Why are you putting me to the test? This was the issue, again and again. The Pharisees wanted to entrap and entangle Jesus.

-Bring me a denarius and let me see it.’ And they brought one. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ Clever. What a clever response on Jesus’ part. Once again, the Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus in an argument but he ended up trapping them. The Pharisees, as we see in the next sentence, were amazed at Jesus’ cleverness at avoiding their obvious attempt to trap him.

“Whose head is this and whose title?” The word “head” means image. Roman coins always had images of the ruler. His title was “the emperor.”

We know a denarius was a day’s wage and a common coin. Jesus was teaching that the Jews and first Christian disciples were to pay their taxes and honor the governing authorities by doing so.

Today, we Christians know that we can do both. That is, we can honor our civic (and imperfect government) by paying our taxes. At the same time, we worship the Lord God Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth and his only Son as our Lord. In all societies and cultures and centuries, Christians have learned we can do both. Worshipping God/Jesus Christ and paying our taxes and honoring our government are not mutually exclusive. In the wisdom of the life we live here on earth, we have learned what it means to revere the Lord God and Jesus Christ and at the same time to respect civic authorities.

Through the centuries, we Christians have learned never to worship our government or any humanly devised institution. We worship only God. We realize that there is an insidious temptation for all people to worship their government and sometimes give the government almost blind obedience. But we then remember Isaiah 40:15-17, “Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as dust on the scales; see, he takes up the isles like fine dust. Lebanon would not provide fuel enough, nor are its animals enough for a burnt offering.  All the nations are as nothing before him; they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.” Throughout the centuries, Christians have learned not to worship governing authorities.

Through the centuries, we Christians have learned to honor civil authority. We know that civil authority is a “mask of God,” to use Luther’s phrase. We know that all human beings need a governing institution for civil society to occur. A society cannot function without civic authority.

We also know that civil authority needs to be continually and constantly improved and reformed. Through the past twenty centuries, Christians have lived under every form of government. Governments, like all human institutions, always need to be reformed and improved. Governments, like churches, are always in need of reformation and positive change. Christians work for the progress of their political system.

This teaching, “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God the things that are Gods,” is deeply grafted into the psyche’s of Christians. The Apostle Paul in Romans 13 clearly articulates the respect that he had for government authority. The invitation in this text in Matthew is also to honor governing authorities. We are to give respect to our president, congress men and women, judges, mayors and all in civic authority.

At the same time, we do not worship the governing authority but only the true God and his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. What is due to emperor is respect; what is due God is reverence and worship. Repeatedly in the New Testament, only Jesus is Lord and not Caesar.

Throughout the history of the church, there have often been battles over this issue: “What does it mean to respect the governing authorities but not worship them.” “What does it mean to be critical of governing authorities yet at the same time respect them?”

In this particular text, there is nothing about the latent conflict about the inequities and evils that permeate all social structures, including the church, business, schools, and government.

What happens when evil permeates a government? That is what Revelation 13 is all about. To contrast Romans 13 with Revelation 13 is important but is not the theme of this text in Matthew.

Some Christians have used this text to support their interpretation of the separation of church and state. Pictured below are denarii. A denarius was worth a day’s wage. All people in that part of the Roman world used the Roman monetary system of the day. A denarius was part of the Roman monetary system.  Many scholars believe that the Roman coins with their images of the emperor on them were not permitted to be used in the Jerusalem temple for offerings. Therefore there were “exchange tables” outside the temple, in order to trade Roman coins for more “kosher coins” that were acceptable for offerings within the Jewish temple. The Jewish people were fanatical about not worshipping images of the emperor and hence would not use Roman coins for worship. But it also seems that during the rest of the week, the people used the Roman monetary system, including the common denarius.

-And they were utterly amazed at him.  The Pharisees were amazed at the ingenuity and cleverness of his answers.  Two thousand years later, we still are amazed at the deftness of Jesus’ arguments and the intellectual power of his reasoning.

The following are additional comments from a sermon based on Romans 13. Some of the Apostle Paul’s comments in Romans 13 are similar to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 22, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar and onto God, the things that are God’s.”

13:1Let every person be subject or submissive to the governing authorities above them. Focus on the words, “every person.” Every person on earth needs to be subject to their governing authorities. That is true if you are a person in China, Norway, the Sudan, or in any nation around the globe. God has organized the world in such a way that we humans need government above us in order to survive. Similarly, God instituted the human family for our survival. We need mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles; we need family in order to raise healthy human beings. You cannot be a civilized human being without family. The family is not uniquely Christian; the family is not uniquely Jewish. Families are found throughout the whole globe and all of history because families were instituted by God in order to raise civilized human beings.

So also, human beings cannot lived together in a civilized way without government. Government, like family, is instituted by God. So if you live in a remote village in China, Norway or the Sudan, at the heart of community life, is the need for governing authorities. Let’s focus on the word, “subject.” It means to be submissive to. For example, let’s say you have been speeding in your car and you get stopped by highway patrolman or woman for speeding. The police car’s lights are flashing and you get pulled over to the side of the road and you roll down your window. What is your attitude as the police person comes up to your door? Meek? Submissive? Respectful? All human beings, not just Christians

are called to be submissive. This is part of universal moral law. All peoples everywhere are to respect governing authorities.

“To governing authorities.” All people of all cultures are to be submissive to the political authorities over us. Governing authorities refers to parents, to police men and women, judges, military, the city governing officials, the county officials, the state officials, the national officials. We are to be submissive and respectful to the governing authorities because that is the only way that human community can work effectively together.

Those authorities have been instituted by God. In the book of Ephesians, it said that God instituted marriage. God created the institution of marriage for our good. So likewise, God instituted human government for our good. If you do not have human government, you have anarchy and chaos.

Those who resist authority will incur judgment. You break the law, you normally will be punished.

Do what is good and you will receive the authorities’ approval. This is true in all the world. In China, Norway and the Sudan. If you obey the laws, it will go better for you. If you don’t, you will be punished.

13:4The government official is God’s servant for your good. Notice, that I have those words in bold print in your bulletin insert. This line is the key to our understanding of government. A public official is God’s servant for the good of the human community. That is what government needs to understand. That government is a servant. If you are a cop, a fireman, a council person, a state senator, you are God’s servant for the public good. Martin Luther talked about the masks of God; that God’s Presence is hidden behind masks such as good government, good family, good education, good economics. A government official is God’s servant, even if he or she does not realize it. In the Old Testament, God was using Pharaoh; Pharaoh was working for God but did not realize it. He was a servant of God without understanding it.

Be subject to the authority, not only to escape God’s wrath, but because of conscience. In other words, we obey the laws of Des Moines, the laws of the county, the laws of the state of Washington, not simply because we are afraid of punishment, but also because all of those laws make possible human community. So we obey the laws, not only because of fear of punishment, but more importantly, we obey the laws because we know that obedience to civil laws make human community possible. We would have anarchy if we did not obey the city, country, state and federal laws. Human community is possible because of them.

13:6, 7 Let us pay our taxes. Pay all of your taxes. We, as Americans, are fortunate to pay taxes. Taxes are a gift from God. Taxes are a sign that government is at work. Let me explain. It takes money to run this congregation. You cannot run this church without money. It takes money to run a human family. You cannot do it without money. It takes money to run government and you cannot run government without money. Government is a gift from God, especially good government is a gift from God.

Respect to whom respect is due. Honor to whom honor is due. There is to be an attitude of respect and honor to those who are in authority.

Romans 13 is at the heart of Pauline theology. Here was a man who was a Roman citizen. He traveled the Roman roads all over the world as a missionary. He had a Roman passport and he said to the Jews, “You can’t beat me up because I have a Roman passport. I am a Roman citizen. Consequently, the Apostle Paul had a very positive regard and appreciation for the Roman government.

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