Pompey, a famous general during the last years of the Roman republic, brought the territory of Palestine under Rome’s control in 63 b.c. when his support allowed one side in a Jewish civil war to gain victory. From that point on, Israel ceased to be an independent kingdom and was ruled by client kings — like Herod the Great — who were loyal to the caesar. In 6 a.d., Rome began to rule directly that part of Palestine known as Judea through governors, or procurators. With this rule came also a yearly poll tax of one denarius, the normal daily wage, which was levied on every adult from puberty to age sixty-five. Most Jews loathed the poll tax because it symbolized Rome’s control of Judea.
This background sets the stage for the test Jesus faces in today’s passage. The Herodians and disciples of the Pharisees come to our Lord “to entangle him,” inviting Him to answer their inquiry about the poll tax by flattering Him insincerely (Matt. 22:15–17). Most of the time, these two groups could not agree on anything because the Herodians accommodated themselves to Roman rule while these Pharisees represented those who wanted independence. Yet their common enemy is Jesus, and so they unite to test Him regarding the poll tax.
As in past episodes (21:23–27), Jesus is in a no-win situation. The Jewish populace will hate Him if He affirms the propriety of the poll tax. Yet if He declares it unlawful, He can be charged with treason. Jesus, of course, sees through the ruse. He asks for the coin used to pay the tax, which for pious Jews should be a special copper coin minted with Rome’s approval, not the silver denarius, which is seen as idolatrous because it depicts the caesar’s image and his title divus et pontifex maximus, Latin for “divine and high priest.” Jesus’ enemies are revealed as hypocrites when they produce the denarius (22:18–21). Those who hate idolatrous coinage are carrying unclean money themselves.
Because the coin has the caesar’s image, it is his and should be given back to him. What belongs to God, however, must also be returned to Him (vv. 21–22). This silences the critics of Jesus and shows that His community respects the secular authorities and does not promote rebellion.
Our Lord’s teaching is a useful principle for understanding when it is lawful to obey the state. As long as it does not claim for itself the rights that appropriately belong to God, Christians must obey the ruling authorities. This means we obey even when we do not agree with their tax rates, speed limits, or regulation of other parts of our lives. Do you obey the government when no biblical principle is violated even if you do not like the laws of the land?
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