McFarland

Wednesday Bible Study by Pastor Kelli

Light a candle

Read Matthew 22:15-22

Today’s story is about paying taxes…but is there more to it than that?  From the very beginning of our passage, we know that the following conversation isn’t one of genuine curiosity or academic debate, but it was a premeditated scheme to trap Jesus.

The Pharisees and the Herodians – aka: the religious leaders and the devotees of Herod – they team up and ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”  This isn’t income tax or property tax or sales tax – it’s the Imperial Tax.  In the words of David Lose, it was “the one denarius a year that Jews had to pay the Romans to cover the cost of occupying their country.  That’s right.  They were paying their oppressors to, well, oppress them.”[1]  As you can imagine, your everyday Israelite was not thrilled by this tax.

If Jesus spoke in favor of the tax, the ever-increasing crowds that have been following him would vanish if not turn against him.  The Pharisees would be pleased with this turn of events.  If Jesus spoke against the tax, it could be considered treason against the occupying force of Rome.[2]  The Herodians would be pleased with this turn of events.

I’m going to give credit where credit is due, and this was a pretty great trap.  Jesus is given an either/or question, and both answers are going to get him in serious trouble.

In classic Jesus-fashion, instead of falling into the trap, he, instead, offers a third option to answer their question.  He says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (v21)

Author Debie Thomas writes about this answer, which is what I consider to be the interpretive key to this text.  She writes, “[Jesus] doesn’t say that there are two distinct realms, the religious and the secular, and that they require our equal fidelity.  What he says is far more subtle and complicated: the coin is already the emperor’s – there’s his face stamped right on it – so give it to him.  But then consider the much harder question: What belongs to God?”[3]

Thomas continues to write about how in account of creation from Genesis, humans are made in the image of God.  Like the coin’s with Caesar’s image stamped on it, “God’s likeness is stamped into us and upon us.  God’s signature is written across our very beings.”[4]  We are made by God and we have God’s image in us and on us.  So then, how are we giving to God what is God’s?  Everyone I meet is also stamped with the likeness of God, so am I treating them as such?

Unfortunately, Jesus doesn’t give us a detailed T-Chart, with what belongs to the religious in one column and the secular in the other.  This would be impossible because, in the words of one author, the “kingdom of God represented by Jesus embraces all of life.”[5]  There is no place or scenario or context in which we are not a disciple of Christ made in the image of God.  Our baptismal identity does not turn on or off depending on the situation.  Our call to be a follower of Christ is more integrated than that – it has more integrity than that.  We are made in God’s image and bear the cross of Christ on our foreheads at all times and in every place.  So instead of dividing when we are God’s and when we aren’t, the Gospel writer Matthew “leaves it to his readers in their own situations to be ‘Jesus theologians’.”[6]  We are called to discern how to best honor and respect what is made in God’s image in every situation. 

[1] David Lose, “Daily Bread, Matthew 22:15-22,” …in the Meantime, accessed October 12, 2020, http://www.davidlose.net/2014/10/matthew-22-15-22/.

[2] Dennis C. Duling, footnote to “Matthew 22.17” in The HarperCollins Study Bible: Fully Revised and Updated NRSV ed. Harold Attridge (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2006), 1706.

[3] Debie Thomas, “What Belongs to God”, Journey With Jesus: A Weekly Webzine for the Global Church, Since 2004, October 11, 2020, accessed October 12, 2020, https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay.

[4] Thomas.

[5] M. Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vo. 8 (Nashville: Abindgon Press, 1995), 420.

[6] Boring. 420-421.

Reflection Questions

1) Who in our lives can help us discover where our loyalties lie and how we can live out that commitment?

2) Being reminded that we are made in God’s image, does this change how we view ourselves or our own worth?

3) Being reminded that everyone we meet is also made in God’s image, does this impact or shape how we act in the world?

4) How might God be calling you to respond to this passage?

Extinguish the candle