O God, our refuge and our strength, give ear to the holy prayers of Thy Church, and grant, that what we ask with faith, we may effectually obtain.
– From the Collect for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday’s Gospel takes place during Holy Week and shows Christ’s enemies seeking to “insnare him in his speech” (Mt 22:15). They know Jesus is someone they need to get rid of, the only question is how to do it.
When the disciples of the Pharisees, along with the Herodians, approach Jesus they address him as “teacher” (the Douay-Rheims translation says “master,” but “teacher” is a more literal translation of the underlying Greek word). At first, this sounds like a term of honor toward Jesus. However, in every case save one in which someone else addresses Jesus as “teacher” in Matthew’s Gospel, that person is either accusing, challenging, or testing him. The term, which is one of great respect in the Jewish culture of the day, becomes derisive in the mouths of Christ’s opponents. Clearly, they see him as a false teacher whose influence over the people must be overcome.
Christ’s interrogators believe they have a perfect way to trap him: use the hated Roman tax as a weapon against him. They ask, “Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Mt 22:16-17 RSV-CE). They first seek to soften Jesus up with flattery, then plan to pounce on him when he teaches error. Contrary to their complimentary tone, they hope that any answer Jesus gives will condemn him. If he says pay the tax, the Jewish people will no longer look to him as a possible Messiah, for gaining independence for Israel from foreign oppressors was seen as a primary duty of the Anointed One. However, if he advocates refusing to pay, then the Roman authorities will surely move against him. Either way, the Pharisees will rid themselves of this troublemaker.
But Jesus is the great reader of human hearts. Although he is rich in mercy and compassion, he has no patience for those who openly mock the things of God. He responds first by exposing their inner thoughts: “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites?” (Mt 22:18). By doing this, he reveals to all present the falseness of his inquirers. Then, for the sake of the crowd, he brilliantly gives his now-famous answer,
“Show me the money for the tax.” And they brought him a coin. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mt 22:19-21)
Most who have read this passage naturally focus on its teaching regarding the duties of the Christian to the State. However, Christ’s words here should not be limited to a simple lesson in civics; he is succinctly putting all things in their proper order. A mere coin that is created by Caesar properly belongs to Caesar—he has the right to ask for it back. But what belongs to God? The human heart. And God has the right to ask for man to give it back to Him. The heart is what the Pharisees had so corrupted by not giving it back to God. Jesus turns their question about a minor political issue into an opportunity to teach his hearers what is truly essential—giving one’s whole heart in service to God.
Portions of this article were adapted from my book, Who is Jesus Christ? Unlocking the Mystery in the Gospel of Matthew.
Eric Sammons is the Executive Director of Crisis Publications. He is the author of eight books, including Deadly Indifference: How the Church Lost Her Mission and How We Can Reclaim It.