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Matthew 22 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Caesar or God

Devotion to God demands a higher allegiance to him than to anything else, but it is not an excuse to avoid our other responsibilities that do not conflict with it.

God's Mission Sometimes Produces Powerful Enemies (22:15-17)

Courageously speaking God's message as Jesus did can yield adversaries among those who suppose themselves his spokespersons. The Herodians (v. 16) were unlikely allies with the Pharisees. Pharisees generally cooperated with the aristocracy only when grave national interests were at stake, providing an essential coalition between populist and institutional leadership (as in Jos. Life 21-22). Here the extreme situation presented by Jesus brings the two groups together (Smallwood 1976:164; Bowker 1973:41; compare Mk 3:6). The coalition hopes to catch Jesus coming or going: either he will support taxes to Rome, undercutting his popular messianic support, or he will challenge taxes, thereby aligning with the views that had sparked a disastrous revolt two decades earlier. In the latter case, the Herodians could charge him with being a revolutionary-hence showing that he should be executed, and executed quickly.

Locally minted copper coins omitted the emperor's portrait due to Jerusalem's sensitivities, but because only the imperial mint could legally produce silver and gold coins, Palestine had many foreign coins in circulation. The silver denarius of Tiberius, including a portrait of his head, minted especially at Lyon, circulated there in this period and is probably in view here (Reicke 1974:137). The coin related directly to pagan Roman religion and the imperial cult in the East: one side bore Caesar's image and the words "Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus," while the other side referred to the high priest of Roman religion (Ferguson 1987:70-71). Like it or not, Jews had to use this coin; it was the one required for the poll tax in all provinces (Lane 1974:424).

Jesus Reveals His Opponents' Hypocrisy and Greed (22:19-22)

To render to Caesar what was Caesar's was to return his own coin to him (compare 17:25; Rom 13:6-7; 1 Pet 2:13-14; Jer 26:8-9; 27:6-22; 29:4-9; Ezek 8-9); to render to God what was God's was to render worship to him alone (compare 4:10). Neither the image nor the superscription on coins in common usage could prevent Jewish people's single-minded devotion to God. The appropriate response to living in a society whose beliefs differ from one's own is to critically evaluate and withstand its claims, not to censor such claims from being heard or to boycott all participation in the society.

Further, some suggest that Jesus was challenging the idea that his opponents needed to hold on to the coins at all; why not return them to Caesar? Jerusalemites preferred death to allowing Caesar's image to enter Jerusalem on standards (Jos. Ant. 18.59), yet they carried it in on coins. Those who hated Caesar's image to such an extent would make an exception for coinage only if they valued money too much (W. White 1971:233; Witherington 1990:102). By contrast, surrendering to God what is God's implies the surrender of all one is and possesses (Patte 1987:309-10). In Jesus' teaching elsewhere, possessions have a zero value, and those who seek them are not the simple who trust in God (6:19-34). Rather than compromising his popular support, Jesus ends up embarrassing his challengers; they, not he, are the ones carrying the offensive coin, so scruples against it cannot be their own (Danker 1972:202-3). Thus they rightly earn his derisive title for them: hypocrites (22:18; 6:2; 15:7; 23:13-29; 24:51).

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