11 October 2014

Matthew 22: 15-22, rendering to
Caesar, and rendering to God

The denarius with the image of Caesar represented a day’s labour ... Roman coins in a private collection in Callan, Co Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

11 October 2014


In our Bible studies each Wednesday morning in our tutorial group, we are looking at the Lectionary readings for Sunday week.

Sunday week [19 October 2014], is the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity [Proper 24]. The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for that Sunday are:

Exodus 33: 12-23; Psalm 99; I Thessalonians 1: 1-10; Matthew 22: 15-22.

Matthew 22: 15-22

15 Τότε πορευθέντες οἱ Φαρισαῖοι συμβούλιον ἔλαβον ὅπως αὐτὸν παγιδεύσωσιν ἐν λόγῳ. 16 καὶ ἀποστέλλουσιν αὐτῷ τοὺς μαθητὰς αὐτῶν μετὰ τῶν Ἡρῳδιανῶν λέγοντες, Διδάσκαλε, οἴδαμεν ὅτι ἀληθὴς εἶ καὶ τὴν ὁδὸν τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν ἀληθείᾳ διδάσκεις, καὶ οὐ μέλει σοι περὶ οὐδενός, οὐ γὰρ βλέπεις εἰς πρόσωπον ἀνθρώπων. 17 εἰπὲ οὖν ἡμῖν τί σοι δοκεῖ: ἔξεστιν δοῦναι κῆνσον Καίσαρι ἢ οὔ; 18 γνοὺς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς τὴν πονηρίαν αὐτῶν εἶπεν, Τί με πειράζετε,ὑποκριταί; 19 ἐπιδείξατέ μοι τὸ νόμισμα τοῦ κήνσου. οἱ δὲ προσήνεγκαν αὐτῷ δηνάριον. 20 καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς, Τίνος ἡ εἰκὼν αὕτη καὶ ἡ ἐπιγραφή; 21 λέγουσιν αὐτῷ, Καίσαρος. τότε λέγει αὐτοῖς, Ἀπόδοτε οὖν τὰ Καίσαρος Καίσαρι καὶ τὰ τοῦ θεοῦ τῷ θεῷ. 22καὶ ἀκούσαντες ἐθαύμασαν, καὶ ἀφέντες αὐτὸν ἀπῆλθαν.

Translation (NRSV):

15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ 21 They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

Putting the Gospel reading in context:

It is possible to imagine a build-up to the Gospel reading in the themes we can find in the other readings, the Old Testament, Psalm and Epistle.

Exodus 33: 12-23

In the verses immediately before this reading 7-11, we are told that “the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (verse 11).

Moses, who has found favour in the sight of God (verses 13, 16, 17) asks to see the glory of God (verse 18). God promises him “goodness” (verse 19) and grace (“gracious”), but God says Moses cannot see the face of God: “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (verse 20).

The people have already seen the golden calf and bowed down before it as an idol. But for many ancient peoples, to see a god’s face was to invite death.

Even so, God grants Moses more knowledge than that he gives to others: he will see his “back” (verse 23) but not his face.

Psalm 99

Psalm 99 is a hymn of praise to God as king. The endings of verses 3, 5 and 9 may be a refrain, said or sung by worshippers as they “extol” (verse 9) God.

God, on his throne above the “cherubim” (verse 1, the half-human, half-animal creatures thought to hover above the altar in the Temple), is to be praised by “all the peoples” (verse 2). “His holy mountain” (verse 9) is no longer Mount Sinai but Mount Zion, the hill on which Jerusalem stands. But still God speaks to the people “out of a pillar of cloud” (verse 9), so they cannot see his face.

I Thessalonians 1: 1-10

Saint Paul preaching in Thessaloniki ... a fresco in the Cathedral Church of Saint Gregory Palamas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This introduction to the first letter to the Church in Thessaloniki includes greetings of grace and peace from Saint Paul and his two companions, Silvanus (Silas) and Timothy.

The Church members in Thessaloniki have become “imitators” (verse 6) of Saint Paul and of Christ, being joyful in spite of persecution. They have become examples for the other believers to imitate throughout Macedonia and Achaia (verse 7).

People know how they have turned their faces from idols to God and now worship and serve the “living and true God” (verse 9).

Matthew 22: 15-22

It is Holy Week, the week between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. The Gospel reading is set in the courtyards of the Temple in Jerusalem (Matthew 21: 23), the day after Christ has overturned the tables of the moneychangers.

The moneychangers were in the Temple because the coins in use in the Roman Empire included images, such as the image of Caesar, who called himself “lord” and “divine” when those titles truly belong to God alone, and “priest” when that title challenges the ritual purity and claims of the Temple. Images like those on the coin are forbidden in the Temple of the God who forbids such images.

Christ is teaching in the Temple, where the religious and civic leaders of Jewish society, the priests and the elders, have challenged him about the authority for his words and his deeds, his teaching and his action.

He declines to answer the question, as I was pointing out on Wednesday of last week in a sermon here in the chapel. Then he tells the Parable of the Wedding Feast, which was the Gospel reading for last Sunday [5 October 2014].

Now Christ is confronted by two further sectors of Jewish society, the followers of the Pharisees (verse 15) and the Herodians (verse 16), the people who supported Herod, the Roman puppet king, and his successors. They too are united in their plot to entrap Christ, and while they appear to speak to him with respect, they speak with irony.

The question they put to him is the subject of great debate in Jewish circles at the time: should religious and loyal Jews pay the annual poll tax to Rome? (verse 17).

Jewish opinion was divided on this question, and the Zealots among them claimed that God’s people should not be subject to pagan Gentiles.

But, like last week’s question about the baptism of John the Baptist, this is a loaded question. This is yet another question loaded with presuppositions, with built-in fallacies and false dichotomies. Last week I gave the well-known example of the sort of question all lawyers know not ask: “When did you stop beating your wife?”

The question put to Christ in the Temple this morning only allows one of two answers, Yes or No. But it is only a question about law. It does not ask, for example, whether it is moral to pay those taxes, or whether it is folly not to pay those taxes.

It is entrapment and it is fallacious. If Christ answers Yes, the Zealots and other Jews hostile to Roman rule are going to turn against him. On the other hand, if he says No, he risks being arrested for inciting rebellion against Rome.

Christ sees through the plot that is being set for him and the intended malice. He describes his interrogators as “hypocrites” (verse 18) for pretending to respect him but intending to discredit him.

A silver denarius with images of Tiberius Caesar and his mother Diva Augusta

The coin they bring to Christ is a denarius (verse 19). The denarius was a silver coin and the most common Roman coin of the time. It is mentioned in the Bible more often than any other coin, and it is sometimes known as the “penny” of the Bible because the King James Version uses that word for it.

The denarius was a day’s pay for workers and Roman troops. In the parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Matthew 20: 1-16), we see that a denarius was the ordinary payment for a day’s labour (see Matthew 20: 2, 9, 10, 13).

There are other well-known examples of the denarius as common currency in the New Testament:

“But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend’.” (Luke 10: 33-35).

When he looked and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages [200 denarii] would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” (John 6: 5-7)

But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” (He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) (John 12: 4-6)

Having looked at the head on the denarius he is given, Christ then looks at the inscription. In the parallel accounts (Mark 12: 13-17; Luke 20: 20-26), he asks: “Whose head is this, and whose title?” (Mark 12: 16), or “Whose head and whose title does it bear?” (Luke 20: 24).

The denarius of Augustus bore on its obverse a head or bust of the emperor crowned with a laurel wreath and with the inscription: Caesar Augustus, Divi Filius, Pater Patriae, “Caesar Augustus, Son of God, Father of His Country.”

On the reverse was a depiction of the imperial princes, Gaius and Lucius, the adopted sons of Augustus, each with a spear in his hand, with a background of crossed spears, a star representing heavenly sanction, an image of the stipulum or ladle used by Roman priests in their libations, and the litius of the augurate, and the added inscription Principes Iuventutis (“the first among the young”).

The coin handed to Christ in the Temple is most likely the denarius of Tiberius, which on its obverse has the inscription Ti Caesar Divi Avg F Avgvstvs (Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti Filius Augustus, “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, Augustus”), inscribed around an image of Tiberius with a laurel crown.

The reverse side depicts a seated woman as Pax. This was Livia Drusilia, wife of Augustus and mother of Tiberius; she died in AD 29 and was later deified by her grandson Claudius with the title Diva Augusta, and women were to invoke her name in their sacred oaths. On the coin, she holds a palm branch in her left hand and an inverted spear in her right hand, and the inscription on this side refers to Tiberius as Pontif Maxim (Pontifex Maximus), or “High Priest” of the Roman State).

Christ does not even get around to flipping over the coin to read the inscription on the reverse side referring to Tiberius Caesar as the High Priest. But both inscriptions are affronts to monotheistic Jews, and so the coin should not have been in the hands of anyone in the Temple.

Yet, when Christ asks them to produce a denarius in that setting, they do so immediately. In other words, they themselves have already carried an image of Caesar and Diva Augusta, and blasphemous inscription, into the Temple of the Lord God.

Until that moment when the coin is placed in Christ’s hand, he is caught in the horns of a dilemma. It is the Passover season, and Jerusalem is flooded with hundreds or thousands of pilgrims who have arrived to remember and celebrate God’s liberation of their ancestors from slavery under foreign rulers.

Beneath the Villa Jovis in Capri, where the Emperor Tiberius threw his enemies off the cliff-top into the sea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

At Passover, parallels might have been drawn between Tiberius and Pharaoh. Tiberius Claudius Nero, or Tiberius Julius Caesar, was a tyrant in his own right. He was Roman Emperor from AD 14 to AD 37. He spent most of the latter years of his reign in the Villa Jovis on the island of Capri, where Tiberius spent much of his final years, leaving control of the empire in the hands of the prefect Lucius Aelius Sejanus.

While Tiberius was in Capri, rumours abounded as to what exactly he was doing there. Suetonius and Tacitus record lurid tales of sexual perversity, including graphic depictions of child molestation, and cruelty, and most of all his paranoia. Those who questioned or challenged his power and divinity were often thrown off the cliffs at the Villa Jovis onto the rocks below and into the sea.

If Christ says paying taxes to Caesar is wrong, he risks provoking immediate action against him by the Romans. If he says paying taxes to Rome is right, those who question him are ready to accuse him of betraying the memory and tradition, faith and beliefs of the people as they recall their liberation from slavery and oppression.

But Christ trips those who are sent to question him by showing that they are bearing proclamations of Caesar’s lordship and high priesthood into the very Temple of the God they claim to be serving with ritual purity.

The obvious questions here are not about what is lawful, or even what is moral or wise, but: who is the divine son, and who is the great high priest?

Christ has won the argument. He has unmasked his critics. There is no need for any further argument, there is no need to say anything more, there is no need to answer the question.

Yet, having won the argument, he answers the question anyway. What he says would have meaning for any Pharisee present. He says: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (verse 21).

The word Christ uses in his answer, ἀπόδοτε, is translated as “render” (KJV; RSV: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”), “give back” (NIV) or simply “give” (NRSV, verse 21). But the verb ἀποδίδωμι (apodidomi) can mean to give back, restore or repay. It can mean to deliver, to give away for one’s own profit what is one’s own, to sell, to pay off, or to discharge what is due. It can refer to a debt, wages, tribute, taxes, or produce due.

Of course, to the Jews of that time, as to us now, all we have is given to us by God, and we owe everything to him.

So what in this world is God’s?

The alternative, paired Old Testament reading for this Sunday (Isaiah 45: 1-7) is helpful here. God addresses King Cyrus of Persia, who is a gentile but nevertheless “anointed” and called by the God of Israel (verse 1). It is not only the people of Israel who are God’s, but all to whom God gives life and breath.

God tells this gentile king, that he is providing help “though you do not know me … so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things” (Isaiah 45: 4-7). East or west, light or dark, in all circumstances, God is God, and there is none other.

Our psalm for this Sunday describes God similarly as Lord of all peoples, of all the earth: “The Lord is king … he is high above all peoples” (Psalm 99: 1-2).

Or, as Psalm 24:1 puts it: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.”

As far as any of this relates to the question Christ was asked in the Temple, everything belongs to God, who is the rightful Lord of the earth and all that is in it, the world and all people in it.

When it comes to any worldly power that competes and makes demands to be our lord, whether it’s a figurehead, a flag, or the exclusive claims of some nation-state nationalism, this is a place reserved exclusively for the Lord God.

The coin’s inscriptions, with their claims about Caesar’s divinity and high priesthood, and the idolatrous images of one who claimed divinity and his mother who is about to be deified , turn this from a debate about paying a poll tax to an occupying foreign power to an unmasking of the duplicitous thinking of those who challenge Christ’s authority in the Temple, in his teaching and in his table-turning, his words and deeds, while at the same time compromising their own claims to ritual purity within the bounds of the Temple.

Next: Matthew 25: 14-30.


Almighty and everlasting God:
Increase in us your gift of faith
that, forsaking what lies behind,
we may run the way of your commandments
and win the crown of everlasting joy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

All praise and thanks, O Christ,
for this sacred banquet,
in which by faith we receive you,
the memory of your passion is renewed,
our lives are filled with grace,
and a pledge of future glory given,
to feast at that table where you reign
with all your saints for ever.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a Bible study with part-time MTh students in a tutorial group on 11 October 2014.

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