Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

164. Tribute to Caesar? (Matt. 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26)

Wednesday had ended with the rulers being filled with frustration and hatred because of the open attacks made upon them by Jesus. "The same hour" (Lk.) that he spoke his very plain parable of the wicked husbandmen "they sought to lay hands on him" (Lk.)-would have arrested him there and then in the temple court—but "they feared the people".

So overnight they planned different tactics. Earlier they had joined forces to make their challenge: "By what authority doest thou these things?" (Mk.ll :27). Now, next day, they came at Jesus separately with more problems. Somehow they must undermine his standing with the people and also find good ground for accusation against him.

There is no explicit statement by any of the synoptists that this renewed attack took place next day, Thursday, but Matthew (22 :15) seems to imply here an intermission in their evil activities. The chronology of the last week also seems to require it. And if there is no break, then the gospels represent the Lord Jesus as cramming an incredible amount of activity into one day.

It was on this day, or the preceding one, in passover week that the appointed Bible reading amongst the Jews was Psalm 94. There is much here that is appropriate to the encounters, which took place in the temple court, especially this section:

"Who will rise up for me against the evildoers ? or who will stand up for me against the workers of iniquity? Unless the Lord had been my help, my soul had almost dwelt in silence. When I said, My fool slippeth; thy mercy, O Lord, held me up. In the multitude of my thoughts within me thy comforts delight my soul. Shall the throne of iniquity have fellowship with thee, which frameth mischief by a law? They gather themselves together against the soul of the righteous, and condemn the innocent blood. But the Lord is my defence; and my God is the rock of my refuge, and he shall bring upon them their own iniquity, and shall cut them off in their own wickedness; yea, the Lord our God shall cut them off" (Ps.94 :16-23).
For the next trial of strength it suited the Pharisees to team up with the Herodians, as they had done on a former occasion (Mk.3 :6). They were also careful to send into action men whom Jesus had not personally encountered in controversy before, so that they could readily deceive him into thinking themselves genuine sympathizers. Thus he might well be inclined to express himself in a frank and open fashion, and so commit himself to opinions that they could make malicious use of. With evident disgust the gospel writers tell how these "spies" sought to "Take hold of his words" (Lk.), "to catch him in his words" (Mk.)-this latter expression describing the hunting or snaring of animals (cp. Pr.6 :25,26 LXX).

These adversaries would surely not have persisted in these dialectical methods if they had not found how well they worked with other self-accredited teachers. They stopped only when, as this day went on, they found that they were instead giving Jesus opportunities for further victories.

If Jesus said "Yes" to their question: "Shall we pay tribute to Caesar?", this could be used against him to destroy his standing with the common people. If he said "No", then who better than the Herodians to take up the case with the Roman governor, thus leaving the reputation of the Pharisees with the people unsoiled?

They evidently expected him to say "No", for out of this they hoped to "deliver him to the power and authority of the governor" (Lk.)

Tribute or no tribute?

"Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man, for thou regardest not the person of men." All this oily talk was designed to encourage Jesus into thinking that he was among friends and could therefore speak his mind openly. In actual fact the compliment was, as Jesus would readily perceive, an insult, for it implied that he was a simpleton to be readily taken in by their sycophancy.

"Tribute to Caesar—is it lawful or not? Yes or no? Shall we pay, or refuse to pay?" They were pressing for an unequivocal pronouncement.

The records in Mt. and Mk. use the word for a poll-tax which, every Jew would think, should be paid only to the sanctuary of the Lord (Ex.30 :12-16). Thus the enquiry was strongly loaded in favour of the answer: No. In A.D.6 Judas of Galilee (Acts 5 :37) had denounced tribute to Rome as both blasphemy and treason, and he died for it. Now it was hoped that Jesus would pay the same penalty.

They had begun by praising his discernment. Now he showed how he could use that faculty on them! "Why do you tempt (test) me in this way, you hypocrites?" At Massah-Meribah (Ex.17 :7) Israel had similarly tempted God, challenging Moses: "Is the Lord among us, or not?" Now the test had the same evil motive— and the same answer: water out of rock.

Jesus was not taken in by the smarmy talk of these men. He saw through their wickedness (Mt.), their craftiness (Lk.), their hypocrisy (Mk.).

A simple answer

"Bring me a denarius that I may see it," he bade them. It has been suggested that there was some rule about not defiling the court of the temple with pagan money, but this will hardly do, for had there not been a fully-organized market and system of money-changing there? More likely, this carefulness to avoid taking pagan money into the holy courts was a special punctilio of Pharisee hypocrisy—a typical inconsistency, since they were willing enough to make use of the Gentile authority in order to get rid of the hatred Nazarene. So the denarius had to be fetched, possibly borrowed for the occasion from a Roman soldier in the near-by fortress of Antonia. Jesus scrutinized it carefully, to urge them to do likewise.

"Whose image and superscription?" The coin he focussed their attention on carried these inscriptions:

TI. CAESAR. DIVI. AUG. F. AUG and PONTIF. MAXIM, that is, Tiberius Caesar Divine Augustus son of Augustus—Pontifex Maximus.

Then Jesus gave his judgement: "Give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar's—and give back to God the things that are God's."

It was all so simple, when he put it this way. And, try as they would, there was nothing in it for them to criticize. These men were accustomed to spending long hours on casuistry, the resolving of special-case problems. They were more used to it than a Roman Catholic priest. So they, better than any, were able to appreciate the needle-sharp perspicacity behind the simplicity of the principle enunciated. How they would have liked to tear his dictum to pieces! But "they could not take hold of his words before the people'—literally, "they hadn't the strength," the mental capacity or power. So even though there was hatred there was also grudging admiration (Lk.20 :26; cp. Mt.22 :33,46).

Perhaps those evil men did not altogether lose in this encounter, for "Render tribute to Caesar" commanded the enthusiasm of hardly a single Jew. So probably as a result of this pronouncement Jesus lost a lot of popularity tha* day. This, and the damp squib of his triumphal entry, are probably sufficient to explain the failure of the Galileans to rally to his support in the day of his trial.

A deeper meaning

But did his adversaries give due weight to the other practical consequences of the lord's answer? "Give back to God the things that are God's"? Genesis (1:26) told how man had been made in the image of God. And redeemed saints in Christ are described as bearing God's superscription (Rev.3 :12; 7:3; 14 :1). Then how much more important than tax-paying is the unqualified rendering to God of what is fully His by right?-a man's own self!

In discussion of the same problem the apostles splendidly preserve the same balance. Peter: "Dearly beloved, as strangers (Gk: "those living in a foreign land") and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul. . . glorify God in the day of visitation. Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king as supreme, or unto governors . . . Fear God, Honour the king" (1Pet.2:11-14,17).

Similarly Paul: "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers . . . Render therefore to all their dues, tribute to whom tribute is due, custom to whom custom ..." (Rom.13 :1,7). But also: "present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service" (12 :1).

But the men to whom Jesus spoke his wisdom were not inclined to heed it. Instead, next day, they did not scruple to twist out of all recognition what he had said to them: "We found this fellow . . . forbidding to give tribute to Caesar" (Lk.23 :2).

Notes: Lk. 20:20-26

Watched him; s.w. Ps.130 :3; 37 :12. Mt. says an alliance of Pharisees and Herodians were involved in this. Hatred of Jesus reconciled irreconcileables.

Spies. Was one of these Saul of Tarsus? See Study 162, and note v.26. 2Cor.4 :2 has s.w. asv.22here.
In Mt. the problem is introduced with: "What thinkest thou?", the very phrase with which Jesus had challenged them to assess one of his parables; Mt.21 :28.

He perceived (gave careful thought to) their craftiness. Yet there was a bland simplicity about the a-b-c quality of his reply: "Bring me a penny that I may see it... Whose is this image ...?"
Render means "give back to him." The coin, was Caesar's; then "return it to him if he demands it." Since there was no point-blank question about it, Jesus made no comment on the issue raised by Dt. 17:5. If there had been, what would he have said?

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