Pharisees set a trap for Jesus with a query about paying tax to Caesar. Like much in the Gospel, this has a story on its surface and a far greater one in its depths.
Prisoners often come to my door with questions. Sometimes they simply don’t have the ability to search through the library for answers and sometimes they just assume that a guy my age must know at least something about almost everything. My friend, Pornchai Moontri sometimes chimes in with answers of his own.
One day a prisoner asked me, “Do you know any Latin? Pornchai shot back, “Of course he does. It was his first language!” The implied meaning was that I am old enough to remember when Latin was spoken on the streets of the Roman Empire. The prisoner didn’t get the joke so he didn’t laugh. I got it, and I still look forward to my quid pro quo moment.
But Pornchai may not have been entirely wrong. I went to a public high school as a teen growing up on the North Shore of Massachusetts in the 1960s. (Yes, locals still call it the “Noath Shoah”). I graduated from Lynn English High School at age 17 in 1970, and what I most remember about those years is Latin. At Lynn English I studied basic, intermediate, and advanced Classical Latin with Miss Ruggiero who also moderated the “Latin Club” of which I was a charter member.
Latin was not my first language, but I became proficient in my first language, English, only because I studied Latin. I owe a great debt to Miss Ruggiero because she was never satisfied with our merely learning the discipline of Latin. We also had to study in depth the setting in which it was spoken: the vast Roman Empire that had spread throughout the known world.
THE ROMAN EMPIRE
The Roman Empire lasted for only five centuries. One of them, the one we now call the First Century A.D. (Anno Domini, Latin for “the Year of the Lord”) includes the Roman occupation of Judea during the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the life of the Early Church.
The Empire began to spread from the city of Rome to the rest of Italy and neighboring regions to become the Roman Republic about 500 years before the birth of Jesus. In 49 B.C., Gaius Julius Caesar, a Roman military strategist, and politician prevailed in a civil war and became dictator of the Republic. He ruled for only five years when he was assassinated on the Ides of March (March 15). The month of July was named in his honor.
Caesar’s longtime military deputy, Mark Antony, and his grandnephew, Gaius Octavius, defeated Caesar’s assassins and rivals. Then they turned on each other. At the battle of Actium in 31 B.C., Octavius prevailed over a plot by Roman governor Mark Antony and the Egyptian princess, Cleopatra, Caesar’s former mistress who took up with Mark Antony. It’s one of the great soap operas of history.
In 27 B.C. the Roman Senate proclaimed Octavius to be the Roman Republic’s supreme leader giving him the title, “Augustus,” meaning “exalted or holy one.” Most historians cite 27 B.C. as the date the Roman Empire was born. Its first Emperor took his title and added “Caesar” in honor of his great-uncle, Julius.
Augustus Caesar thus meant, “Caesar the Exalted Holy Roman Emperor.” It was a title and not a name. Augustus was also given the titles, “Pontifex Maximus,” supreme head of the state religion, and “Pater Patriae” (“Father of the Fatherland.”)
The month of August was named in the ancient Roman Calendar in honor of Augustus. It’s easy to see the Roman influence not only in the Latin language of the Church but in the religious titles later assigned by tradition to the papacy. It’s a crime against history to allow Latin to fade from tradition, for Christianity transformed it from the language of Earthly powers to the language of the Church.
From 27 B.C. forward, “Caesar” became the title for a string of Roman rulers. Three are mentioned by name in our New Testament: Augustus, who reigned at the time of the birth of Jesus (see Luke 2:1); Tiberius, in whose fifteenth year as Emperor Jesus was baptized by John at the Jordan (Luke 3:1); and Claudius (Acts 18:2) who commanded that all Jews leave the city of Rome. Others, such as Caligula and Nero, are not mentioned by name but had a profound effect on early Christianity.
By the birth of Jesus, Augustus centralized power by turning to the Equestrian Order, Roman citizens with wealth, power, and property, and sustained their loyalty by appointing them governors over the various regions of Roman occupation. When Jesus was about 14 years of age, Tiberius succeeded Augustus as Emperor, and later appointed one of the Equestrian Order, Pontius Pilate, as governor of Judea.
In some ways in the early years of the advance of Rome into Palestine, the Jews saw it to their advantage. It was a chance to free themselves from the oppression of the Seleucids, the Greek dynasty under Antiochus IV Epiphanies who overtook the Jerusalem Temple in 167 B.C. and replaced the Torah in the Sanctuary with the cult of Zeus.
This is a story of great oppression and resistance that I wrote of in a 2017 Lenten post, “Semper Fi: Forty days of Lent Giving Up Giving Up.” The First Book of Maccabees (1 Macc 8:1-6) spoke positively of the advancing Romans and an alliance with the Jews to expel the Greek oppressors. A century before the birth of Jesus, Rome became the dominant force in the Mediterranean region.
CAESAR AND CHRIST
So when I came to the Gospel reading for the Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, I was struck by the answer Jesus gave to the religious scholars of his day, the Pharisees, who had set out to entrap him. Armed with a thorough knowledge of Hebrew law, they asked Jesus if it is permissible for Jews to pay the census tax to Caesar.
The brief story that the Gospel tells in Matthew 22: 15-22 is a good story on its face, but if you are willing to dig a little deeper under into its depths, the result is fascinating. So sometime before or after you hear the Gospel for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, invest a little of your own ordinary time for a careful reading of the rest of this post.
It is impossible to fully understand the dynamic in this account between Jesus and a group of Pharisees without some exploration of its setting. First, the story on the surface:
“The Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech. They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying, ‘teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the tax to Caesar or not?’
“Knowing their malice, Jesus said, ‘Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin that pays the census tax.’ Then they gave him a coin. Jesus said to them, ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this’ They said, ‘Caesar’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard it, they marveled; and then they left him and went away.” (Matthew 22: 15-22)
Why were the Pharisees plotting against Jesus at all? It began in an earlier chapter of the Gospel, Matthew 12. The Pharisees challenged Jesus over his disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath because they were hungry. The chapter then culminates in his Sabbath Day healing of a man with a withered hand.
Using the Pharisees’ own expertise in Hebrew Law and the Prophets, Jesus challenged them to consider the prophetic meaning of “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (quoting from the Prophet Hosea 6:6). Stymied by the challenge, “the Pharisees went out and took counsel against him on how to destroy him.” (Matthew 12:14).
The next encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees is the account of their question about whether the Hebrew law permits Jews to pay a census tax to Caesar. When Jesus asked to see the coin that would be used, and then asks whose image is on this coin, he cut to the heart of their trap with one of his own.
The coin was a denarius stamped with the profile of the Emperor, Tiberius Caesar. The tax was deeply offensive to the Pharisees because of a law set forth in the Book of Exodus:
“You shall not make for yourself a graven image whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath… You shall not bow down to them, or worship them.” (Exodus 20:4-5)
To pay a tax to Caesar using the coin of the realm, one engraved with Caesar’s image, was considered a direct affront to the Hebrew law, and yet the Roman occupation required it and it was the price Jews paid for freedom from the oppression of the Greeks who committed a far more serious abomination: total desecration of their Temple. So paying it was an accommodation that the Jews begrudgingly obliged despite their own law.
But what these Pharisees wanted to know from Jesus was not whether or not to pay the tax, but his opinion on whether it was in accord with the Law of Moses. The trap was set no matter how he answered. If his opinion was that it was lawful to pay, then it would be a public insult against the Law of Moses which could be used to discredit him. If he said it was not lawful to pay, then it would have been a public insult against Rome which could be used to accuse him of insurgency.
But in the end, Jesus trapped the entrappers by saying something that caused them first to marvel, and then to simply go away in silence. His trap had multiple tiers. The first was to play upon the word, “likeness.” The coin bore the image and likeness of Tiberius Caesar. Therefore, for Jesus, it belonged to him.
To pay the tax is simply to render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. It would be a clearer violation of the law against graven images for a Jew to keep the coin. But the Pharisees would also see in this a subtle reference to a passage in Genesis with great authority:
“So God created man in his image; in the image of God he created him.” (Genesis 1.27)
Hence the second part of Jesus’ challenge: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”
This meant not just their obedience to the law, but their very selves. The gist of the implication is even stronger. This higher duty, for Jesus, is incumbent not only upon these Pharisees, but even upon Caesar himself, and that was a revolutionary thought that put the Pharisee’s in a stupor.
For the Pharisees to challenge him in any way after this would have required their affirmation that Caesar is an ultimate authority that surpasses even the will of God. So they were left to marvel, and then they just left. This places an entirely new meaning on the accommodations to Caesar made by religious authorities of Jesus’ time – and perhaps even our own.
Somehow, between this scene in the Gospel of Matthew that is proclaimed at a Sunday Mass, and the Gospel of John that we will hear in Holy Week, came the final descent of faith and the cost of believing culminating in the scene before Pilate that became my Holy week post this year: “The Chief Priests Answered, ‘We Have No King but Caesar.’”
It was the ultimate accommodation to Caesar from which there is no return. As for the vast Roman Empire that tried to make its Emperor god, the successor of Peter remains in Rome to this day. The successor of Caesar is but a footnote on history.
Editor’s note: For more forays into the deeper wells of Scripture visit these posts on These Stone Walls:
- The Chief Priests Answered, “We Have No King but Caesar”
- Joseph’s dream and the Birth of the Messiah
- Casting the First Stone: What Jesus Wrote in the Sand
- Upon the Dung Heap of Job: God’s Answer to Suffering