The gospel and Caesar’s coin: overcoming false dichotomies
18th Sunday after Trinity
READINGS: Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
“And He said to them, ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’ ” (Matthew 22:21 NKJV).
We’re back in the temple, where The hatred of the Lord’s enemies was nearing its apex and his murder at their hands was imminent. On the day when the event recorded in our Gospel reading took place, the chief priests and elders of the people, having been rebuked and publicly humiliated by Jesus, beat a retreat. But the Pharisees and the Herodians, who still had some fight in them, mounted a counterattack. Their counterattack took the form of a question designed to entrap Jesus. The question was this, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matthew 22:17) Jesus wasn’t fooled by this question. His answer shut his questioners’ mouths and drove them away in defeat. It is the Pharisees’ and Herodians’ question, and our Lord’s answer to it, that we will examine now. May God grace us as we do so.
I. SETTING THE STAGE
Let’s set the stage by first dealing with some important preliminaries. We’ll begin by identifying whom the Pharisees and Herodians were.
The Pharisees & the Herodians
The Pharisees were a religious and political party that prided itself on strict adherence to the Law and the traditions that had built up around it. The Jewish historian Josephus wrote that there were about 6,000 Pharisees at the time of Christ. The Gospels reveal the Pharisees as consistently aggressive opponents of Jesus.
The Herodians were Jewish supporters of the Herodian dynasty that ruled over the Jews as vicegerents of Rome. The Herodians were politically motivated.
On the day in question, the two parties joined forces in an attempt to destroy Jesus.
The aim of the question
The question posed by the Pharisees and the Herodians assumed that Jesus would answer in one of two possible ways. If he answered in favor of Caesar, he would lose face with the Jewish people. If he answered against Caesar, he would place himself at risk with the imperial Roman power.
The nature of the question: a false dichotomy
The question took the form of a false dichotomy, either horn of which promised to impale Jesus if he responded wrongly. But Jesus answered wisely and impaled his hearers with both horns.
Why this story is important
A study of the question and the intricacies it involved, as well as a study of the Lord’s answer, is of great value to us for several reasons. First and foremost, it explains what was really in play in the confrontation. Understanding the truth is good for its own sake because it informs, arms, and liberates us. But second, this passage is important because it exposes a ploy that our enemies often marshal against us. The ploy is that of a false dichotomy.
A dichotomy is a separation of issues into two exclusive, opposed, or contradictory positions. A false dichotomy is the separation of two issues into unnecessarily opposing positions. In the hands our enemies, false dichotomies seek to put us at risk by drawing us into choosing one truth (or person or institution) in unnecessary opposition to another.
I’ll give you some examples. To begin with a ridiculous question first, imagine you were asked, “Is a true human being male or female?” Such a question would seek to elicit an answer that forced you to choose males against females or females against males. But since human beings are male and female, you can’t say that one is truly human and the other isn’t. The question therefore poses a false dichotomy, one that cannot (or should not) be answered as asked.
Another false dichotomy is the one that seeks to force a choice between divine sovereignty and human free will. The Bible teaches both, and if you choose one side over the other you will oppose the truth on the other side.
Another common false dichotomy, and one that came into play in the Pharisees’ and Herodians’ question of Jesus, is a false dichotomy that seeks to pit church against state or state against church. Both institutions are ordained of God, and both must be respected. You cannot choose one against the other without opposing God.
Since false dichotomies are a common ploy of Satan and his followers. We need to recognize them as such, and know how to combat them when confronted with them. If we follow Jesus’ example we too will be able to impale our enemies with the horns of the false dichotomies they marshal against us.
Enough with preliminaries; let’s now look into the trick question of the Pharisees and the Herodians.
II. The tricky Question
Stung by Jesus’ initial rebuke and indictment, the Pharisees retreated to plot a counterattack. The question they came up with arose from that plot. As we have already noted, the Pharisees joined forces with the Herodian party. Feigning respect, the joint body approached Jesus and spoke the following, “Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men. 17 Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”
The social realities behind the question
There were profound social realities behind this question. We do well to note them before we proceed.
• Politics & Taxes First, though the Jews enjoyed a great deal of governmental autonomy under Rome—the Sanhedrin was their ruling council—they were ultimately subject to imperial Roman authority. In the ancient world the citizens of the ruling power didn’t pay taxes, but subjected peoples did. Because the Jews were a subject people, they were obligated to pay taxes to Caesar.
The Pharisees, who wanted to be free of Rome, chafed under this tax. The Herodians didn’t, because it was the Herod line of regional rulers that collected Caesar’s tax and passed it on to him. Nonetheless, the Pharisees and Herodians were agreed on their hatred for Jesus and colluded in the question of paying Caesar’s tax.
• Caesar’s Coin: Religion & Politics The tax was paid with a silver coin minted by the reigning Caesar. The coin was called a denarius. At that time, the coin was almost certainly one minted by the current Roman emperor, Tiberius Caesar.
The front side of the coin featured a profile of Tiberius’ head with the victor’s laurel wreath wrapped around it. Surrounding the image of Tiberius were words that translated (in Latin or Greek), “Tiberius Caesar august Son of the august God.” The word “august” effectively meant worshipped as divine.
On the reverse side of the coin the emperor’s mother, Julia Augusta (Livia), was featured sitting on the throne of the gods. In her right hand was the Olympian scepter and in her left hand the olive branch; these things symbolized her as the earthly incarnation of heavenly peace. The words that surrounded this image simply stated “Pontifex Maximus,” which indicated Caesar as the High Priest, the true mediator between the gods and men.
The coin thus combined politics with religion in the person of the reigning Caesar.
Most Jews were understandably and deeply troubled by the emperor’s tax because (1) it served as an ongoing reminder that they were a subject people, and (2) because the coin with which they paid the tax, boasting as it did in Caesar’s supposed deity, was idolatrous.
From the Pharisees point of view, paying Caesar’s tax had religious implications. But from the Herodians’ point of view, the implications were political. In truth, both issues fused in the question of Caesar’s tax because Caesar’s coin combined the issues of statecraft and worship, of politics and religion.
• Jewish Coin & Tax Second, though unmentioned in the question that Jesus’ enemies asked, we should allow the Jewish poll tax to serve as a backdrop to their question about Caesar’s tax. Jews the world over sent the poll tax to the temple on an annual basis, in the spring, to underwrite the daily burnt offerings there. The poll tax was paid in a very different coin from Caesar’s denarius. It was paid in drachmas, two of which sufficed. Though it is difficult to calculate the exact value of two drachmas, it was probably about two days wages for an ordinary workman. Most Jews willingly paid the poll tax but only grudgingly paid Caesar’s tax. I’ll say more on this in a moment.
The expected dangerous answers
The aim of the question was to trap Jesus into being either for or against Caesar’s tax, and therefore either for or against Caesar. If he declared for the tax, he would lose the respect of the Jewish majority that detested the tax for political and religious reasons. If he declared against the tax he would be reckoned treasonous by Rome, which claimed the Jews as their subjects and their lands as Roman territory.
How did Jesus answer this potentially devastating question? To that let us now turn.
III. THE DEVASTATING ANSWER
The Lord perceived the wickedness of the questioners and rebuked them for their hypocrisy. They were playacting. Jesus’ was not.
“Show me the tax money” (vv. 18-21)
“Show me the tax money,” Jesus demanded. In response, they gave him a denarius. With the coin in hand, Jesus then asked, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They responded, “Caesar’s.” Then Jesus pounced. “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Breaking down the Lord’s answer
A breakdown of the Lord’s answer reveals its brilliance, for in it he addressed both the spoken and unspoken sides of the question’s false dichotomy.
On the spoken side of the question, which had to do with Caesar’s tax, he accepted as givens that (1) Caesar held political sway over the Jews and in fact provided protections to them that enhanced their welfare, and (2) Caesar was therefore entitled to receive tribute (taxes) from the Jews. Jesus’ answer thus granted Caesar his political rights and called for submission to them.
The unspoken side of the question inferred the temple tax, and all other obligations that the Jewish people owed God under the Law. Jesus accepted and endorsed these obligations as well.
When Jesus said that the Jews should render to Caesar the things that were Caesar’s, he was referring to Caesar’s tax. But when he added that the Jews should render to God the things that were God’s, he rejected the religious notions symbolized on Caesar’s coin. Jesus thus accepted Caesar’s political claims, but not his religious claims. The Jews could not worship him. They were to worship God alone.
To elaborate this last statement, when Jesus commanded the Jews to render to God the things that were God’s, he recognized and endorsed the Jewish obligations that were still in force under the Law, chief of which was the exclusive worship of the one true God. The political side of the equation was another matter. Israel lost its political independence because of its longstanding disobedience to the Covenant. So unpleasant though it was, Roman political oversight was a necessary consequence of Jewish apostasy. The Jews thus needed to pay the “jailors” that their covenant breaking imposed on them. Those jailers were Romans.
So we see that Jesus recognized the two horns of the false dichotomy, separated one from the other, put each in its proper place, and called upon the Jews to render to Caesar that to which he was entitled (tax) and to God that to which He was entitled (worship.)
We too must learn to separate the horns of false dichotomies and dilemmas, and to address each in legitimate fashion. Doing so will disarm our enemies and turn the tables on them.
IV. FACING OUR OWN TRICKY QUESTIONS
Given the wickedness of our age, our own enemies often attempt to gore us with the horns of false dilemmas and dichotomies. When they do so we should take a page from Jesus’ playbook and form our response.
Rules for responding
First, we should recognize false dichotomies for what they are. Beware the questioner who appears well meaning. He or she may well be a hypocrite motivated by evil intentions.
Second, when the horns of a false dichotomy attempt to gore you, don’t respond until you’ve separated the horns and assessed each in its proper light.
Third, when you answer a question armed by a false dichotomy, don’t answer it in the way your questioner expects. Answer it in the way that best serves God’s purposes. In other words, don’t let the question dictate your answer.
On the issue of Church & State
One particularly thorny issue in our day rotates around questions that pertain to Church and State. Secularists want to subject the Church to the State, and misguided churchmen want to subject the State to the Church. Informed Christians agree with neither position. Church and State have divinely appointed but different roles, and on an institutional basis those roles need to be kept separate.
Of course, the more Christian the state is, the better; at least in terms of its laws, functions, and divinely imposed limitations. But a state largely governed by Christians must never be confused with the institution of the Church. The State’s primary job is the restriction of evil and the punishment of evildoers, in accordance with godly standards. The Church’s primary job is the ministry of grace and the discipling of nations.
Christians must render to the State what it is due, which are the legitimate taxes it needs to perform its legitimate duties, and obedience so long as it does not violate Christian conscience.
Much more needs to be said on this issue, but I leave it with you to approach these things in the same manner that Jesus approached the paying of Caesar’s tax and the worship of God.
When Jesus commanded the Pharisees and Herodians to render to Caesar the things that were Caesar’s and to God the things that were God’s, his first objective was to rebuke and silence them. He accomplished his purpose with devastating effect. The co-conspirators “marveled, and left Him and went their way” (v. 22).
But our Lord’s words address several other issues as well. First, they show us how to provide wise responses when our enemies present us with false dichotomies. Second, they remind us to render to the state what it requires of us, which is mostly just our taxes, and to render unto God our whole beings in a life of obedience. We can do both. We should do both. God help us to do so! Amen.