2- Reading and understanding the Gospel: Paying the Tribute to Caesar (Mt 22:15-22)
15Then the Pharisees went away to work out between them how to trap him in what he said. 16And they sent their disciples to him, together with the Herodians, to say, “Master, we know that you are an honest man and teach the way of God in an honest way, and that you are not afraid of anyone, because a man’s rank means nothing to you. 17Tell us your opinion, then. Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” 18But Jesus was aware of their malice and replied, “You hypocrites! Why do you set this trap for me? 19Let me see the money you pay the tax with.” They handed him a denarius, 20and he said, “Whose head is this? Whose name?” 21 “Caesar’s,” they replied. He then said to them, “Very well, give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.” 22This reply took them by surprise, and they left him alone and went away.
2. 1- Explanation
On his second day in Jerusalem (Mt 21:18), Jesus entered the Temple and came out only after railing against the Pharisees, accusing them seven times of hypocrisy (Mt 23:13-36). We notice that in the temple (Mt 21:23-24:1), there was a rising tension between Jesus and those with whom he is speaking. Initially, there were five controversies with them, from which Jesus emerged victorious in his wisdom and responses. The first controversy concerned authority: where did it come from, from God or from people? Jesus did not answer directly to this question, but instead he gave them three parables (the two sons; the wicked tenants of the vineyard; and the wedding feast), which demonstrated that his authority came from God. The themes of the other four controversies were: the tribute or tax due to Caesar; the resurrection of the dead; the greatest commandment; and how Christ can be at the same time Son and Lord of David.
In the Gospel of Caesar’s tax, we notice that the tone of the text indicates tension between the speakers. The atmosphere is stressful and tense. His enemies have come in order to obtain a declaration from Jesus which will lead to his arrest and a ban on him continuing his activities. In the second controversy, Matthew clarifies the purpose of the Pharisees’ council meeting: to “work out between them how to trap him in what he said” (Mt 22:15). To accomplish this goal, they sent their disciples together with the Herodians. Herod’s followers were loyal to the Romans who imposed a tax on every Jew, with the exception of children and the elderly, in addition to taxes such as customs taxes and taxes on those journeying through. The Herodians were satisfied with these taxes as they profited from them, unlike the pious Jews who were against them, because it implied acceptance of the authority of Roman colonization. Thus, Jesus’ response, whatever it might be, against or in favour of tax, would be partisan.
The Pharisees were hypocritical, redoubling their praise of and compliments to Jesus (Mt 22:16). But Jesus, who knew their tricks called them “hypocrites” (22:18), for the second time in Matthew (after Mt 15:7), and before insulting them seven times in chapter 23. Jesus abhors such duplicity in behaviour, the contradiction between what they really are and the appearance they give themselves. Before explaining Jesus’ answer, it is necessary to know that the presence of a denarius in their pockets, in the Temple, means that they approved that Caesar had rights over them. The hypocrite, in fact, deceives himself before deceiving others: he is the first victim of his theatrical and religious play-acting.
Jesus’ response “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God” (Mt 22:21), was a criticism of the Pharisees, rather than of Caesar. They fell into the trap they dug for their enemy (Ps 7:13). Jesus then gave them an introduction to the rights of God, without undermining Caesar’s rights; according to him, a man could comply with his obligations, both religious and civil, especially if the edicts of the state did not contradict the moral order intended by God.
2. 2- Summary and Practice
One might well ask what belongs to God and what should be done for Him? Some say that the sentence “Give back to God what belongs to God” means to say that man must belong entirely to God; it is God who created him and saved him, and therefore man is His “property”. On the other hand, as far as Caesar is concerned, it is obvious that his authority is ephemeral and not eternal, and it is incumbent upon us to follow his edicts, as long as they do not contradict moral and human rights.
If we compare the behaviour of the Pharisees with that of the devil in the story of Jesus’ three temptations in the desert (Mt 4:1-11), we find the following similarities: they came to hamper and tempt him, just as the devil did (the verb in the original Greek language is the same in Mt 4:3 and 22:18:); they left at the end of the episode when he conquered, exactly as did the devil (the verb in the Greek language is the same in Mt 4:11 and 22:22). Added to this is the Pharisees’ behaviour which is hypocritical and malicious. Thus, the believer who prays each day, “do not lead us into temptation” must behave in a just way, distancing himself from any hypocrisy and malice towards others, and remembering these words of Jesus “All you need say is ‘Yes’ if you mean yes, ‘No’ if you mean no; anything more than this comes from the evil one” (Mt 5:37).