Summary: For July 4th, I wanted to cover the idea of Christian citizenship, but felt impressed that Jesus' admonition to "Render unto Caesar" didn't end with citizenship but expanded into the area of stewardship.
Life, as we all know, is a constant flow of choices. Do I eat something healthy or “reward” myself with something decadent? Do I get something done now that I don’t really want to do so I can enjoy myself later or do I procrastinate so that I can enjoy something now? Do I make that big purchase on credit and take the pain in payments later or do I start paying for it by saving now and avoid both the hassle and the interest of an installment plan? Do I focus on my career or my relationships? Do I prioritize work or worship? Do I spend my discretionary cash on something I might want or something I’m probably going to need? Do I schedule this event and have to miss another? Do I major in this course of study while realizing that I’m closing the door on another?
We all know that these questions barely scratch the surface of the kinds of decisions you make each day. We also know that there are times that we share big choices with people that we trust and seek their counsel on what we’re going to do. Of course, sometimes we get a little disgusted with those emotional vampires who are always asking us what they should do and then, never do anything we counsel them to do. In today’s text, there are some factions who are closer to those emotional vampires I’m talking about than those who are legitimately looking for some wisdom. Let’s listen to the text (again, the Pastor Johnny translation):
15) Then, the Pharisees went, conspiring together [about] how they could ensnare Him by means of conversation (lit. in the word). 16) And they sent their disciples to Him along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and that You teach the way to God in truth, and You aren’t concerned about anyone because You don’t look at any person’s countenance with partiality [as in “lift up your face”]. 17) Tell us what You think: Is it acceptable to give the tribute to Caesar or not?”
Let’s stop there for a moment and ask a question. “Who are these guys?” The Pharisees we know. They’ve been looking for an excuse to ensnare Jesus for quite a while by the time Matthew unveils this account. But now, the Pharisees have broadened their circle of intrigue with someone called the Herodians. As far as we know from historical research, this faction wasn’t even particularly religious. Maybe they were big donors, secular Jews who had a lot of clout in the religious world? What we do know is that they were avid partisans of Herod Antipas. They perceived him as the rightful ruler in Judea, not Rome. And courtesy of the Jewish historian, Josephus, we know that they were strident opponents of the tributum capitis (“head tax”). Of course, some things never change in politics. Josephus also tells us that their opposition to the “head tax” was “…done in pretence [sic], indeed, for the public welfare, but in reality from the hopes of gain in themselves.” [Wars of the Jews, Book II, Chapter 8]
So, we have some really tricky politicians joining with some fanatical religious leaders and conspiring to ensnare Jesus. The Greek word, παγιδεύσωσιν, pronounced “pah-gee-THEHF-soh-seen” or “pah-gih-DOO-soh-sihn,” is an ancient hunting term and likely refers to a net stretched between trees or bushes to ensnare birds or the classic rope trap that activates when tripped. Either way, it would have been difficult to see until the victim was already entrapped. Fortunately, Jesus was onto them. He not only perceived their plan, but instead of using the verb for “testing” that is trying to identify quality (as in “to assay,” δοκιμάζω) as with metal ore, in verse 18, He used the verb used to identify what is bad (in the sense of tempting or enticing, πειράζετε).
Jesus brilliantly answers their question, cleverly designed to entrap Him between the Romans and the Jewish people who resented the tribute. He could either proclaim Judea as a duty free zone on religious principles and incur the wrath of the Romans or come out as pro-tribute and have the general populace of the Jews turn against Him. Instead, He offers an object lesson that kept him from taking either side in an either/or, us versus them. He calls for the coin used in paying the tribute to Caesar. Let’s read it together:
18) But Jesus knew their evil intent and said, “Why are you testing me [with an implied desire to cause failure], hypocrites? 19) Show me the coin [used] for the tribute.” So they brought a denarius to Him. 20) And He said to them, “Whose icon and inscription [is this]?” 21) And they were saying, “[that of Caesar]. Then, He said to them, “Pay off, then, to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar, but to God the things that belong to God.” 22) And hearing [this], they were amazed, and taking leave of Him, they went away.