Gospel: Matthew 22:15-21

Conflicting Priorities

Have you ever been trapped by conflicting priorities?

"But you promised!" Have you ever heard that phrase from a son or a daughter, a spouse or friend, a neighbor or co-worker? How many times has one promise been broken to keep another? How many times have you had to break one commitment to keep another?

Sometimes what we should do fades against what we have to do. The ideal falls to the real. When others criticize us for failing to uphold the ideal, they force us to face our values and make hard choices. Jesus enemies tried to force him into the making a choice between the ideal and the real. His answer turned the table on their question. It forced them to make a choice of priorities.

Popular Translation

After Jesus scolded the Jewish leaders in the Temple, 15 the Pharisees left. They had a secret meeting where they discussed how to trick Jesus with a question. 16 Then, they sent a few of their followers along with supporters of Herod the ruler to Jesus. "Teacher," they said, "we know you're honest. You teach the truth about God's ways no matter what others think, because you treat everyone the same. 17 So, tell us what you think. Does our Law let us pay taxes to the Romans or not?"

18 But Jesus knew they were up to no good. "Why are you liars trying to trick me?" Jesus exclaimed. "Show me the coin people use to pay the tax." They gave Jesus a Roman coin. Holding up the coin, Jesus asked them, "Whose face and name are these on the coin?"

21 "The leader of the Romans," they answered.

"Then you should give to the Roman leader what belongs to him. But you should give God everything that belongs to him!" Jesus replied.

Literal Translation

Jesus addressed the Jewish leaders in the Temple.

15 Then, leaving, the Pharisees took counsel so they might trap HIM in speech. 16 And they sent to HIM their disciples along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that YOU are true, and the way of God YOU teach in truth, and it does not matter to YOU about someone's (opinion). For YOU do not look at (the position) of men. 17 Tell us, then, what YOU think. Is it allowed (in Jewish Law) to pay tribute to Caesar or not?" 18 But JESUS, aware of their evil (intent), said "Why do you hypocrites test ME? 19 Show ME the coin of the tribute." And they handed HIM a denarius. 20 HE said to them, "Whose image is this and title (is this)?" 21 They said to HIM, "Caesar's." Then HE said to them, "Give, then, that of Caesar to Caesar, and that of God to God."

22:15 "in speech" is literally "in word."

22:16b "(the position) of men " is literally "face of men" The face or image of men defined their position and power in society.

22:22 Literally, "Whose image is this and title?" The word "this" acts as the object for "image" and "title."

After the conflicts in the Temple, Matthew painted a scene of treachery. Jesus entered the Temple and, through his teaching, challenged the religious establishment in Jerusalem. Now, the religious leaders would try to find a way to discredit the Teacher, and ultimately remove him. [22:15]

To face Jesus, the Pharisees aligned themselves with their enemies, the Herodians. [22:16a] The Pharisees represented religious purity. They insisted upon absolute adherence to the Law. In fact, they created an entire code of living as a means to protect the faithful Jew from ever violating the Law (the so-called "fence around the Torah"). The rabbis who followed the Pharisees ruled Jewish ghettoes in Roman cities. The Pharisees worked with their Roman overlords as a matter of necessity.

The Herodians, however, built their power base upon the Roman occupation. Named after Herod the Great, this line of Idumean rulers was set in place by the Romans, ruled in Rome's name, and cultivated patrons in Rome among the elite. Unlike the religious Pharisees who needed to work with the Romans for the good of the Jewish people, the Herodians needed to put on the facade of religious practice to publicly justify their private lives as Roman "wanna-be's."

The religious Pharisees and the secular Herodians made strange bed-fellows. Yet, both faced Jesus. After some cynical flattery, they presented Jesus with a question of priorities. What's more important, the ideal of living a pure life as a Jew (as the Pharisees believed)? Or, bending to the reality of paying tribute to a foreign ruler who fancied himself "son of the divine Augustus, high priest" (as the Herodians held)? [22:16-17]

The crux of the matter came down to the coin, a denarius, payment for a day's wage. In the time of Jesus, the denarius had the image of the emperor, Tiberius, with the phrase "Tiberius Caesar, Augustus, son of the divine Augustus, high priest." Caesar, originally the family name of Julius Caesar, became a title, meaning "emperor." Augustus was a title adopted by Octavius, the nephew of Julius, when he became emperor. Octavius' reign was long and successful, bringing peace and prosperity to the empire. At his death, the city fathers proclaimed him divine (his reign was divine providence, so he must be divine). Like emperors before him, Tiberius was a high priest to the Roman pantheon of deities.

The Pharisees objected to the use of this foreign coin for currency. First, the denarius had an engraved image. Judaism rejected any image for the living God. This notion of the faceless but dynamic God represented a real advance in the evolution of religious thought. No other religion previous to Judaism had such a concept of God. As Judaism spread throughout the known world, their concept of God easily grew from a national deity to a universal one. The God without an image was no longer one deity among those of other nations. He was the only God. No other deity represented by an idol could become universal, since the image limited the god to the context of the people who worshiped it. (Imagine the bull deity among a people who had never seen a bull!) The Pharisees objected to the use of denarius because it bordered on violating the First Commandment ("I am the Lord your God. You shall not have strange gods before me").

Second, since the Pharisees were separatists (not nationalists), they wanted to keep contact with the Romans to a minimum. Use of the denarius increased cultural contact, thus "polluting" the purity of the Jewish people. In Judea itself, authorities minted coins in Hebrew, thus creating a dual currency. Many Pharisees depended upon foreign money changers to exchange Roman coins for local Judean coins (and even pay the tax for them!). To maintain purity, Pharisees devised all types of means to separate themselves from the Romans, yet keep their overlords happy.

Third, payment with the denarius meant tribute (an act that honored the emperor and his gods) not merely taxation. Roman law required the payment of the coin from every freeman in the Empire. While this was a small tax, the act itself loomed large in the Jewish mind. Payment could be understood as an act of idolatry.

Of course, the Herodians were overjoyed with the use of Roman money, since they saw the future of Judaism within the Greek culture of the Empire. The Herodians reflected many other Jewish thinkers who drew the best from the contemporary culture to affirm the place of Judaism in the known world. In fact, some 300,000 Jews lived in Alexandria, Egypt. To maintain a Jewish identity, Jewish scripture and worship had to be translated into Greek so third and fourth generation descendants in the city could fully participate in the community. Without this accommodation to the general culture, there would have been no Greek Old Testaments. Christian missionaries could not have evangelized the pagan Gentiles as easily as they did.

When Jesus asked for the coin, he realized his challengers asked him to make a choice. [22:19] Did he publicly side with the idealism of the separatist Pharisees? Or, did Jesus side with the accommodating Herodians who saw relations with Rome as "Realpolitik?" If he agreed with the Pharisees, the Herodians could charge him with revolution against the Romans. If he agreed with the Herodians, the Pharisees could charge him with idolatry. He had a hard choice of priorities.

Or, did he? When Jesus asked for the image and the title on the coin, he made the Pharisees and the Herodians face up to the choice they gave him. Idealism or reality? Jesus cracked the ideology of both groups with a single answer. Give all to God, but give Caesar his due. [22:21] In other words, live the ideal life the best you can. But, do live in the real world. Religious decisions apply the ideal to the real world, not an exercise of the ideal in spite of the real world. By taking a position in the middle, by stressing the personal responsibility of religious action, Jesus placed the onus of action back on the Pharisees and the Herodians. The ideal and the real are not mutually exclusive.

Catechism Theme: Responsibility and Participation (CCC 1913-1917)

In a single question, the opponents of Jesus asked him to choose between the ideal of a religious life separate from the dominant culture or a life so fully immersed in that culture that religious practice and identity are lost. Of course, Jesus chose the middle. Give to God everything, but give Caesar his due. In other words, we should actively participate in the dominant culture for the common good. In this way, our participation becomes an act of Christian charity (and a means of evangelization).

Participation begins with the personal responsibilities of our families, our work, and churches. To the best of our ability, we should extend our participation to the public arena for the good of the society. For their part, government and social institutions should encourage us to serve others. Thus, those in need and society as a whole grows in hope from a citizenry full engaged.

The thread of participation is the common good. Participation is a moral and ethical act that affirms the dignity of each and every human person. Even in those acts which oppose oppressive governments or social institutions, the focus must remain on the good of all.

How have you exercised personal responsibility and participated in public life for the good of others? How have those experiences helped you grow?

The clash between religious separation and cultural accommodation came from a simple coin and the duty to pay a light tax. The symbols of each weighted heavy on the hearts of Jesus' contemporaries. Yet, in their political struggles they forgot God's reason for social engagement and the government of men. The common good.

In these passages, Jesus gave us the freedom to act in the public arena. But, with that freedom came a responsibility. God calls us to act for the good of all. Does America's obsession with personal freedom preclude the common good? Or does it encourage altruistic acts? Let us pray for the latter.

Reflect on the discussion questions above. List plans you have for service. Resolve to work on one plan this week.