The Reading from Holy Scripture: Matthew 22:15–22 (ESV)
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle [Jesus] in his talk. 16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled.
And they left him and went away.
It is just a few days before Good Friday, and the authority figures who want Jesus dead are ganging up on Him in, of all places, the Temple courts, and pestering Him with questions. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21:23). And now, “tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”
These are not questions asked merely to gather information or to gain greater theological insight from Jesus. These questions are asked in malice, with the intent of proving Jesus wrong and even opening Jesus up to the charge of insurrection against the Romans.
These questions are really traps, intended to ensnare Jesus into saying something that will destroy Him. But Jesus is in charge of the situation at all times. He directs the conversation so as to expose the hard-hearted unbelief of the question-askers. And He counters the hate-filled questions of His enemies with responses—often questions of His own—that are meant to call them to repentance and faith.
As you and I face the various challenges of living in this fallen world, questions arise in our hearts and minds. We look to the Lord. We come to His Word for answers. This is right and proper. But as we come to the Lord with our questions, we must examine our motives. As sinful human beings, we are prone to come like these adversaries—not truly seeking guidance and truth; rather, we ask questions with the desire to ensnare the Lord in an error or contradiction. We approach Jesus with preconceived answers already formulated, foolishly hoping to prove Him wrong. But questioning Jesus thus becomes a scoff at the truth rather than a search for the truth. We then deserve to hear the same harsh rebuke that Jesus uttered just a few verses after today’s text: You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God (Matthew 22:29). (Adapted from A Year in the New Testament: Meditations for Each Day of the Church Year, November 4 devotion).
It is not that God forbids questions from His children. God truly invites questions, even our questions arising from doubt and despair; so keep asking God your questions. But ask your questions in sincerity rather than hypocrisy; ask your questions in a spirit of genuine humility and faith as you submit to the Lord and grow in His Word. Yes, ask, knowing that the Lord is always ready to answer you because He is the answer. It may be that He chooses not to answer your questions to your liking, but He will always answer in such a way as to turn you from your unbelief and to refresh you in the faith. He may even permit you to continue grappling with your questions so that all you can do is to join Him in praying His final prayer from the cross: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit! (Luke 23:46).
Knowing that Jesus is the ultimate answer given to sinners by a loving God, let us consider His answer to those asking Him whether or not it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. This question reveals a volatile issue in Israel: paying taxes to the hatred Romans. The people of Israel, indeed all of Rome’s subjects, laboured under heavy taxation that kept the empire operating. If Jesus answers that it is indeed right to pay taxes to Caesar, it will put Him in disfavour with the burdened people, who will think that He is now in league with Rome. And if Jesus answers that it is not right to pay taxes to Caesar, it can be used against Him with the Roman authorities to support the case that He is an insurrectionist. The Pharisees know that either answer will jeopardize Jesus’ mission—exactly their intent.
But of course, Jesus is aware of their malice, and so He cuts to the chase, calling them hypocrites and demanding to see the coin used for the tax. Now the Jews hated this coin because it was the coin of their Roman oppressors. But their hatred of this coin went even deeper. Jews were not allowed to put images of people, human faces, on their coins; but this coin was stamped with the image of Caesar. Also on the coin was the inscription: “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus … High Priest”. These words would send a shudder through any devout Jew. No Jew would be happy to have to use, even touch, such a coin and would welcome any excuse not to have to pay taxes to Caesar.
But Jesus does not give them such an excuse. Rather, He draws their attention to the likeness and inscription stamped upon the coin and then says “you had better pay Caesar back in his own coin, hadn’t you?”. But let’s be clear. Jesus was not trying to give an answer, for all time, on the relationship between God and political authority. That was not the point. Jesus was countering the Pharisees’ challenge to him with a sharp challenge in return. He gives an answer that exposes their sin: Render to God the things that are God’s. It turns out they are the ones who are compromised, for can they say they have given their full allegiance to God? No, of course not.
Render to God the things that are God’s. These words tell us that if we wish to come to God, we must give God everything which is His due. But what is God’s due? Everything we are and have—our body and soul, our heart, our life, our powers, our joys, our honour— belongs to God. He is the Creator of all things. He is Lord over all, the spring from which everything flows, and back to whom everything must again return.
In asking whose likeness and inscription is stamped upon the coin, Jesus draws a connection to the likeness that should have been evident in the lives of those attacking Him. As the coin bore the image of Caesar, so we were meant to bear the image of God. The image of God is that spiritual likeness of God in which Adam and Eve were created and in which they lived, in perfect righteousness and holiness of life and in a perfect relationship with God, with each other, and with creation (adapted from Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation, p. 395). But that image was lost when Adam and Eve fell into sin.
The adversaries of Jesus ask Him a question in order to trap Him: Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?. But our Lord’s response ends up trapping them. In commanding them to render unto God the things that are God, Jesus is forcing them to ask themselves whether they are giving to God what they should be giving.
And what about you? For whom do you live? Do you live no longer for yourself, but only for God, giving Him your all? The answer is “no”—none of us has rendered unto God what is His due. And how can we, seeing that the human race no longer bears the image of God? All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way (Isaiah 53:6a). By nature, everyone now lives only for him- or herself. By nature, every person hates God. By nature, everyone seeks the satisfaction of his or her heart in the world, its goods, joys, and honour.
God had intended for us bear His image, to live in perfect righteousness and holiness of life and in a perfect relationship with God, with each other, and with creation. But the problem is that God’s image in us is broken; it was smashed to bits when Adam and Eve sinned. We cannot render back to God what is due Him. And God rejects as worthless any offerings we would render of ourselves. And so we have nothing that we could render to God…except Christ Jesus!
Jesus is the very Image of God. As St. Paul says in Colossians: [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God (1:15). Jesus alone could render to God the things that God requires of us all: true fear, love, and trust in God. So perfect and complete was His rendering unto God His Father that Jesus rendered even Himself on the cross as the repayment for all our debts to God.
How ironic are Jesus’ words to the Jewish authorities when He says, [Render] to God the things that are God’s. For when the Sanhedrin arrest and convict Jesus and then hand Him over to the Romans for crucifixion, they are actually rendering unto God what is God’s. There are rendering up to God His very own Son on the cross, thus fulfilling Jesus’ words. It is really amazing. And that giving is what opens heaven and restores us to God’s image. Jesus fulfills the Law for us. Jesus dies in our place. He renders to God what belongs to God so that we again belong to God.
Jesus renders up to God what is God’s: Himself. And with this gift, He not only forgives our sins and declares us righteous, but He also gives us to His Father. He gives Himself and He gives us. He is the image of God, and now so are we. For the Son presents us to the Father as His own immaculate, redeemed, holy Bride in His own image. This is Baptism. This is Good Friday. This is the Holy Communion, the joining of heaven and earth and singing with the angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven.
And this is our joy and worship. We who have been buried with Him in baptism…were also raised with Him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised Him from the dead (Colossians 2:12). We have put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:24). In that righteousness and holiness that is by faith in Christ, let us live and serve God, rendering to God our repentance and our daily denying ourselves, taking up of our crosses and following Jesus in trusting and obedient discipleship. Our hope is not in ourselves, for we confess that we have nothing to render to the Lord for all His benefits to us. But in that contrite confession, let us take the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord. For there, in that blessed Chalice, Christ offers to us the very Blood that was offered up to God for our sins. And thus cleansed and renewed, let us depart in peace, knowing what St. Paul knew, that our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to Himself (Philippians 3:20-21). Amen.