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No. 07. “A Tax ‘Trap' for Jesus…And?”

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Oct 19 2008 Bothwell  

Jesus Wants Me to Do What?” - No. 07. “A Tax ‘Trap' for Jesus…And?”

Matthew 22:15-22



Last Week’s Election Turnout

This past Wednesday an article appeared in The Niagara Falls Review by Corey Larocque. It was titled:

Voter turnout part of worldwide slide, Brock professor says - Citizens in democracies taking right to vote for granted, Siegel says

Larocque began his article like this: If you voted Tuesday, there’s a good chance your neighbour didn’t. ..He noted: Across Canada, turnout was 59.1 per cent – the lowest turnout rate of any federal election in the country’s history...Since Canadian Confederation in 1867, the percentage of voters who cast ballots typically runs in the high-60s and low-70s.

The high water mark was 79.4 per cent in 1958, the election that saw Progressive Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker win the biggest majority government in Canadian history to that point.

Since 1993, turnout for federal elections has consistently been below 70 per cent…

Tuesday was the first time it dropped below 60 per cent.[1]

To Vote or Not to Vote

Before you get too upset please add this opinion into the discussion. A comment was posted on the internet regarding low voter turnout. The author wrote that he was young and disillusioned. All that he had heard from the various candidates was why he should not vote for the other parties. So he took their advice. He didn’t vote for any of them. He stayed home.

Now as a Christian, although I can sympathize with his plight, I do not agree with his response. If he truly felt that way he still could have shown up and deliberately spoiled his ballot. Some who feel that way state that they have written across their ballot “None of the above.” At least then there would have been a record of his discontent.

As a pastor, I will go on record as saying that it is my personal opinion that all of us should exercise this democratic freedom. I believe that it is a part of our duty to the nation in which we live. That does not mean that I agree with everything done by our elected officials. As we reflect upon some of their decisions it is sometimes hard to disagree with Mark Twain who once said, "Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it."[2]

Sometimes Elected Officials Just Can’t Win

On the other hand I don’t think any one is saying that politicians have it easy. On election night Prime Minister Harper reflected on the fact that over the last eight years there had only been one year which was free of either leadership contests or elections.


They too have challenges. In this age of video cameras and cameras in web-equipped cell phones, it seems that every move is open to scrutiny. Those of us who are a little older remember that Robert Stanfield was probably defeated by an election race photo. Many political scientists agree that he was probably the best Prime minister that Canada DID NOT have. He had the misfortune to be running against Pierre Trudeau at the height of the so-called “Trudeau Mania” back in the late 1960’s. For those of you who were too young to remember him, Stanfield was much older and certainly not as photogenic. He was a tall, thin, craggy man who looked even older when standing with Trudeau.

The photo ”op” which seems to have sealed his electoral fate took place on a lovely afternoon. Stanfield had been tossing around a football with some aides and reporters. One pass however was too difficult to grab hold of. At that moment someone’s camera clicked and froze forever that dropped pass as it was slipping through his fingers. The photo shows him bent over and partly twisted around with a desperate grimace across his face. The rest of the afternoon’s successful catches were immediately forgotten. This awkward image of the dropped pass was the only photo to appear in all of the nation’s newspapers. In it Stanfield appeared to be old and un-coordinated, a “butter fingers” type of politician. Voters then made the leap and assumed that this would also be the way that he would run the country. Up until that time the election race had been fairly close, but after the polling was done, the younger and more athletic Mr. Trudeau had squeaked into a majority by only 2 seats. Many later looked back to that fumble photo as the turning point of the campaign.

However there are times when politicians do manage to see potential pitfalls in time.  Although Stephen Harper appears to have miscalculated at least a couple of times in this last campaign there was one occasion when he was obviously watching out for such difficult moments. In Manitoba someone asked a trick question. He was asked the following question: What kind of fruit or vegetable he would like to be and he answered, "I have a feeling I can't win by answering that question."?[3]

Jesus is Asked a Trick Question - Matthew 22:15-22

Perhaps Jesus wished his opponents would ask him a relatively easy question related to vegetable or fruit options. But instead of an election, Jesus would soon come face to face with a crucifixion. Members of the Religious and Political establishment, who usually were bitter enemies, cornered him in the Temple a few days before Good Friday. After royally buttering him up they then asked, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”

“Just give us a ‘Yes' or ‘No’ Jesus. ‘A’ or ‘B.’ After all, its black-or-white Jesus. What shall it be? It’s only your future riding on this choice, Jesus. Come on Jesus, can’t you make up your mind?”

“And for those of you playing at home, why not join right in with us:  What do you think: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”

But this was not just another pollster phoning you at supper time. This was not like the questioned mentioned earlier “What kind of fruit or vegetable would you like to be, Jesus?” This was both a religious and a political question and there was a lot riding on this answer. It was as if these unlikely allies were ganging up on him like school yard bullies and offering the impossible choice of “Heads, I win, Tails, you lose.”

Historical Background Information: Paying Caesar

The poll tax mentioned in this passage was levied by the Romans against the Jews 25 years before in A.D. 6 when Judea became a Roman province. When imposed for the first time, it provoked the rebellion of Judas the Galilean recorded in Acts 5:37...(Now, almost thirty years later) the Herodians were a political party that supported the Herods and the policies instituted by Rome, so they favored the tax, but the Zealots, Pharisees, and people resented it…Should the authority of Caesar be recognized and the poll tax be paid to him?[4]

Jesus knew that if he gave one answer, all of his followers might leave him in disgust. But on the other hand, if he answered the opposite way the authorities could then charge him with treason against the Roman Empire, and, based on his own confession, then execute him. There was no right answer. What could he say?


The Unexpected Answer

Have you been in that spot? Can you immediately come back with the right answer or do you instead only come up with your best answers five minutes too late or perhaps not even think of them until well into the next week, long after the event has passed you by?

But Jesus replies almost immediately. And like any good Jeopardy player, he answers them in the form of a question. First he asks them “What’s in your wallet?” Then holding up one of their own coins he asks: “Whose picture is this? And whose name is on it?”

Instead of wondering if Jesus is now asking them a trick question they quickly blurt out their guilty answers: “Caesar.” “Caesars.”

Jesus then commands: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, give to God what is God’s” Caesar had the right to claim their tax money, but he had no claim on their souls.[5] Caesar can have his paltry tax if only one gives to God his due.[6]

The crowd ooohes and awes. They applaud Jesus for his very creative response. His stunned and embarrassed enemies pack up and go somewhere else to continue plotting his down fall.

Leonard Sweet writes: The Pharisees and Herodians are quarreling over pocket change. Jesus offers an answer that encompasses all of our existence.[7]  “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, give to God what is God’s” Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? And yet it is so profound it has created debate that continues to swirl around us over 2000 years later.

False Dichotomies

Now let me ask you a few questions that I am sure you can answer. These were first asked by Tim Pauls to an American Lutheran audience but I have changed the names to protect the guilty.

1.           Did you put on shoes this morning, or did you come to church in a car?

2.            Do you eat cereal for breakfast, or don't you like hockey?

3.           Are you Baptist, or do you live in Canada?

4.       Will you obey God, or will you pay taxes to Canada?

Welcome to the world of false dichotomies-thing that are wrongly set against each other, "either/or"s that really aren't. Can you wear shoes and come to church in a car? Can you eat cereal and enjoy hockey? Can you be Baptist and live in Canada? Of course; in fact, you can be a Canadian Baptist who wears shoes and eats cereal while enjoying hockey after you've traveled to and from church in a car. None of these things are mutually exclusive. Beware of the one who asks such questions, because there may well be an agenda behind them. At the same time, rejoice! Such scheming is no match for the crucified and risen Jesus.[8]

Matthew’s Irony

Matthew has recorded this event from one of the last days of Jesus earthly life. This dramatic moment contains much irony. And although it may have been tempting, I do not believe that Matthew is including this information just to score points against those who felt threatened by Jesus.  He has a purpose. Earlier I mentioned that their response to Jesus’ question must have been guilt as they admitted what appeared on the head and tail of their coin.

Mark notes in his Gospel that these people were all standing on so-called Holy Ground within the Temple Area. One of the Ten Commandments given to Moses said it was unlawful for God’s people to have any idols. Foreign coins usually had pictures of foreign rulers and most of these men were depicted as a type of god. If you were to hold a Roman denarius in your hand you would quickly understand the use Jesus makes of it. Go to any serious coin shop today and they will have one on display. The head displays the reigning emperor, and on the tail an inscription, reading, in the time of Jesus, "Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, Pontifex Maximus." The emperor was the high priest of Rome's pagan religion.[9] Therefore many regarded these coins as actual idols and none of the people who came to worship at the Temple were allowed to bring in such coinage.

This is where the humorous irony comes in. It was well known that these religious leaders had a very prosperous business exchanging these so-called blasphemous pieces of metal for religiously harmless non-imaged Jewish coins. Yet one of the men who were supposed to be protecting God’s holy standards had one of these offensive items in his pockets. No wonder they were speechless. They knew that they were defeated.[10] Like the effect on the election by that photo of Stanfield dropping the football, here      Jesus has now changed the rules of this encounter.  Forget choosing between answer “A” or Answer “B.” Instead Jesus gives answer “C.” Like Tim Pauls’ earlier four questions it does not have to be black or white. (Jesus) was able to transcend the dilemma they forced on him.[11]

It’s both of them. “Yes Caesar. Yes God.” You could think for a month and not answer any better. As Brett Blair writes:”If Caesar wants his tax, give it to him. His face is on the coin anyway, so it must be his. But what is God's?”[12] [pause and repeat] What is God's? The challenge will always be in the sorting of who gets what.


Conclusions: Priorities

The coins had on them the face of a Roman Emperor, but the Bible says that we are made in the image of God. We are God’s. Jesus said “Give to God what is God’s.” So what is his? How do we give to God what is God’s?

In the Life application Bible commentary Matthew,  Bruce B. Barton summarizes these challenges when he writes: (Jesus) demonstrated that behind many of our conflicts lies a failure to recognize priorities. Should we give time and attention to our families or our work? Can we communicate our relationship with God through the work we do or by setting our work aside and engaging our fellow workers in conversation? Should we support our church or other worthy causes? According to Jesus’ handling of this situation, these problems are issues of timing and priority, not right and wrong. The real challenge for most of us concerns whether or not we are doing what we should be doing at the appropriate time.

Citizenship in the kingdom of God doesn’t lessen commitments. In fact, it often intensifies them! Marriage duties, parental roles, church involvement, earthly citizenship—all take specific place under God’s authority. Make sure your commitment to God stays strong, then all your priorities will be under his authority.[13] We have to ask ourselves, what have we promised to “Give to God” and whose image is on my heart?  Some of these choices are reflected in our closing hymn “Oh Jesus I Have Promised” found at #53.



[1] “Voter turnout part of worldwide slide, Brock professor says - Citizens in democracies taking right to vote for granted, Siegel says,” Niagara Falls Review, Posted By Corey Laroocque, Oct 15 2008:

[2] Quotes,

[3] portion of an internet comment on article: Kelly McParland: “Be thankful voters are smarter than Layton, Dion” Posted: October 16, 2008, 8:30 AM in National Post by Kelly McParland

[4] David G. Hagopian, Render to All What Is Due Them: What Every Christian Needs to Know about Honoring Civil Authority and Paying Taxes, Part 2. Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 4, no. 4 (October 1995).

[5] Bruce B. Barton, Matthew, Life application Bible commentary (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 1996), 433.

[6] Donald A. Hagner, vol. 33B, Word Biblical Commentary : Matthew 14-28, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002), 636.

[7] “Jesus the Iconoclast” by Leonard Sweet, Collected Sermons, Leonard Sweet, ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., 2008, 0-000-1415

[8] Tim Pauls, Your Two-Kingdom Life

[9] “What is Caesar's and What is God's?” Sermons, Brett Blair and Staff, ChristianGlobe Network, 2002, 0-0000-0000-01,

[10] The Things That Are God’s (B. J. Beu) Abington Preaching Annual 2008 p. 324

[11] Donald A. Hagner, vol. 33B, Word Biblical Commentary : Matthew 14-28, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002), 637.

[12] “What is Caesar's and What is God's?” Sermons, Brett Blair and Staff, ChristianGlobe Network, 2002, 0-0000-0000-01,

[13] Bruce B. Barton, Matthew, Life application Bible commentary (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 1996), 433.

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