Matthew 22:19-21 - Any Coins in your Pocket?
Show me the coins used for paying the tax. They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription? Caesar’s, they replied. Then he said to them, Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.Matthew 22:19-21
Have you ever wished you always knew what to say in the heat of a discussion? One of the amazing things about the Lord Jesus, as we meet Him in the gospels, is that He always seems to be that kind of person. No matter what His accusers say, He has an answer ready. Whenever they tried to put Him on the spot, He always managed to turn it around so that they were the ones who found the spot too hot. The above passage is a case in point. The Lord Jesus is being confronted by a rather peculiar alliance: Pharisees and Herodians. Leaders of the Jewish people, ardent nationalists, opposed to Rome in every way, are joining forces with people who support the Roman rule of the Herods. A common enemy makes strange bedfellows. Their purpose is to trap the Lord Jesus. The question is: is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? A positive answer would get Him in trouble with the people of Israel, a negative one could bring the wrath of Rome on His head. What to do?
The Lord Jesus responds with a three-pronged counterattack. First, He says: “Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” Why does He ask them for a coin? Doesn’t he have one? Don’t they know what it looks like? The point is: He wants to know whether the Jews themselves have this kind of coin. On the one side of this coin was the head of the emperor and the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus,” and on the other side there was the figure of the emperor’s mother as an incarnation of the goddess Peace and the inscription “Highest Priest.” Because this coin had so many religious claims and even an image of the emperor, there was a feeling among the Jews that actually they should not even look at, let alone handle, this coin. That Jesus’ questioners could provide one of these coins on demand cut the ground from under their feet. Not even these Jews who so abhorred it for its idolatry could avoid this kind of tie with the emperor and his state. They were using Caesar’s money, so let them also pay his taxes! If they were benefiting from his money and the things that come about by way of it (roads, sewers, etc.), aren’t they really part of the whole system? The coin in their pockets testifies to the hypocrisy in their hearts!
It’s no different today. No one can absolutely sever every possible tie with the government of his country. Even the Hutterite living in his isolated colony, reaps some benefit of the government of his land – whether it be the money in his pocket or the peace and freedom that he enjoys. That is what the Lord Jesus shows us as well. We may act as if there is a wall of separation between us and politics, but the coins in our pockets prove the opposite! It’s just impossible to be an Anabaptist consistently! Neutrality is a myth. Total separation is an impossibility.
The Lord Jesus then delivers them yet another blow. For when He asks them whose portrait and inscription is on it and they say, “Caesar’s,” Jesus says as it were: Doesn’t the coin that has Caesar’s face and Caesar’s name on it belong to Caesar? “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s!” Caesar’s coins are best suited for paying Caesar’s tribute. The word “give” here actually means “give back.” What do you do with something that belongs to someone else? You give it back. What to do with Caesar’s money then? Give it back to Caesar! Why should anyone object to giving back to Caesar what is rightfully his?
And even with that there is yet a third blow. For the Lord Jesus also says: “...and to God what is God’s.” Since it is one sentence, it actually means, “give back to God what is God’s.” Some suggest that the sense may very well be: If coins that bear Caesar’s image have to be given back to him, people who bear God’s image have to be given back to God! It’s an interesting thought. The point is deeper though. The addition puts the matter in a wider perspective. It was because of loyalty to God that most Jews objected to Roman taxation, but the Lord Jesus subtly indicates in this way that political allegiance even to a pagan state is not incompatible with such loyalty. The inspired apostle later expanded on this teaching of our Lord when he wrote:
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God... Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.Romans 13:1, 5-7
We too need to bear this in mind. The ungodliness of governments does not justify ungodliness on the part of the people of God. We may debate their policies, question their practices, but always we must recognize that they rule not just because of the people and the political process, but because they are appointed by God. Ungodly emperors notwithstanding, Paul writes as he does and Peter echoes his sentiments. “Fear God. Honour the king” (1 Peter 2:17). Christians were thrown to the lions, abortions were heard of already then, but the apostles have learned from the Lord: Give to God what is God’s, honour the Emperor. Our Lord Jesus Christ paid taxes and gave honour – even to the very government that crucified him. So too for us. If we have coins in our pockets, we just can’t get away from it – we are involved in the political and economic life of the nation. With the privileges come responsibilities.
“Giving to God what is God’s,” goes far beyond singing the national anthem on Canada Day. It means: we are involved in the politics of our nation. We must bear God’s message into public life. We must be the salt of the earth. We must carry those who rule in our prayers. We must perform a service of love even to the tyrants among them, by warning them in the name of God and by communicating to them the truth that has been entrusted to us. We must go forth into this area of life – not to make it His, but precisely because it is His.