Heads I win, tails you lose.

Signpost for Sunday 19 October 2014: Exod 33:12-23; Ps 99; 1 Thess 1:1-10; Matt 22:15-22

This week’s Gospel reading is crucial, brilliant stuff. It shows us what a smart guy Jesus of Nazareth was and why the powers-that-were saw him as a real threat to their authority. It also shows that whoever wrote Matthew and Mark took great pains to tell this story carefully to make a point. It’s a point I’ve pretty much missed till now.

That’s because I’ve heard Matt 22:21 so many times. You probably have too.

Well don’t switch off this time when you hear “Give, therefore, to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And I hope you don’t do what I usually do and think that Jesus’s point was that I should be a good citizen, do my civic duty, pay my rates and taxes honestly without trying to dodge that responsibility, but I must also be good Christian and remember that the money I make and owe is not the most important thing in life. Because that’s somehow the message I’ve picked up over the years. Others apparently think the story is all about the fact that politics and religion don’t mix or that the state and religion should remain separate.

Well, none of that has anything to do with what Jesus is talking about, whether you read the story in Matthew 22:15-22 or Mark 11: 27.

For us this week, the clue is back in Matthew 21:23, and the clue is that Jesus is telling this story inside the Temple.

He starts off speaking to the “chief priests and elders” (21: 23), then “chief priests and Pharisees” (21: 45). And then the Pharisees involve, not their mates, but people who were usually their opponents – the Herodians (22:15). The Herodians weren’t religious leaders, they were the Jews who, through their support of Herod Antipas, Rome’s puppet King, supported Roman rule.

Here they are coming together to see if they can get Jesus to say something either blasphemous or seditious. They are out to get him one way or the other.

And what a bunch of squirmy obsequious blighters they are. The Pharisees and Herodians address Jesus as “Teacher,” which sounds respectful enough until you realise that in Matthew’s gospel Jesus is only ever called teacher by people who don’t follow his message.

Now here’s something that most translations don’t make clear: Matt 22:17 doesn’t refer to taxes in general, it refers specifically to one of three general taxes – a “poll tax” which demanded that every single person pay one denarius per year.

But when Jesus asks the Pharisees and Herodians for a denarius coin he’s not actually reminding people how much the tax costs, he’s springing his own trap – coins with Roman images and inscriptions were not allowed inside the Temple. (Think back to Matt 21:12-14 when Jesus overturns the tables of the moneychangers. The reason those moneychangers are there in the first place is to change Roman coins into Temple coins.) The crowd is going to get the point.

But that’s not the only point Jesus makes. He asks whose image is on the coin (the best translation is “image,” not “likeness” or “head”). What Jesus is doing is reminding the crowd about worshiping graven images. That’s also why he asks what inscription was written on the coin. In 30 AD, it would have been: Ti(berius) Caesar divi Aug(usti) f(ilius) Augustus (Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus.)

Now comes the famous bit “Give, therefore, to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Any first century Jew would know that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24: 1). For a good Jew everything is God’s. No exceptions. No wonder the Pharisees and the Herodians left at that point.


P.S. thanks especially to Progressive Involvement for most of this.


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