Reflection on Matthew 22:15-22(20th Sunday after Pentecost)

The Gospel according to Matthew 22:15-22

The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

Let us pray to the Lord for our stewardship of His creation, for our faithful use of all His gifts, and for grateful hearts, that we may honor the Lord with our words and with our works. This we pray in the name of your Son. Amen

The Jesus portrayed in Matthew was not so easily pinned down on political issues in his day, but their question is short and to the point: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? They were hoping to trap Jesus with a question that in their minds was a lose/lose situation. But first they smooth the way by speaking of Jesus’ integrity, commitment to truth and equity, and lack of concern for the opinions of others. This is the point where no matter how Jesus answered he would have caused issues with the Pharisees and Herodians, they were hoping for an answer that would trap Him. If he answered another way he would give offense to the poor who are especially burdened by this particular “flat tax.”

Jesus asked “Show me the coin used for the tax. This was a moment of pause as he formulated His answer. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

It seems that Jesus managed to wiggle out of the trap, but it’s not clear that anyone yet has figured out precisely what he was getting at. Some people point to this passage as proof that God and politics should be kept separate. That things like taxes have absolutely nothing to do with one’s theological commitments. Others say that this story proves that religion is a matter of the heart, and that Jesus didn’t really care about ordinary things like what you do with your money. And some have cited this passage as proof that Jesus taught that the law is the law, and our duty as Christians is to support the government. All three of these interpretations are speculation.

In the end, these questioners of Jesus go away amazed. Amazement is not such a bad response as this Gospel causes us to think. If they, and we, would leave an encounter with this biblical text amazed at the Jesus portrayed there, a Jesus not easily categorized, a Jesus wise in his answers to testing, a Jesus whose first allegiance is to the all-encompassing scope of God’s reign then it will give us time to address our allegiance to God, while navigating in life challenges that often pull at that allegiance.  Such navigation is not easy, and we would do well to seek God’s wisdom and discernment as we desire to follow Jesus in a world full of temptations. Yet Jesus is the source of God’s wisdom, his wisdom shows through in his answer to this test by the Pharisees and Herodians.

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