Matthew 22:15-22 | Paying Taxes


Paying Taxes


Matthew 22:15-22

Key Verse 22:21b


“Then he said to them, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”


Jesus said “Many are invited, but few are chosen” (14) to those who were listening— the disciples, the religious leaders and the crowds. It was the last thing he said to conclude his parable on the wedding feast. These words us a lot about God’s invitation to the wedding feast of his Son, which in essence is an invite to salvation. The first thing it tells us is that the gospel of salvation is like a wedding feast. What this means is that our salvation is like a celebration of marriage union with the Savior of our souls, Christ Jesus. It tells us that God’s invitation to salvation goes out to all people who ever lived. Every person, no matter who they are and what they’ve done, are invited to this wedding feast. But not all those invited will accept the gospel of salvation; most will flatly reject it for all kinds of silly reasons— reasons they will come to regret one day. And while many are invited to the wedding, only those who are properly dressed with the true gospel will be welcome. All those who choose to dress up in a different gospel will be thrown into the darkness to perish. Indeed, “Many are invited” to the wedding feast, but only the humble and obedient “few are chosen” The will be united with their Savior, the Bridegroom, in his kingdom. It’s easy for those who live in this world to ignore God’s invite for the trivial worldly things. But they must know that there can be nothing more important to God than the wedding of his Son. No one can afford to ignore or reject it. As the Lord tells us, the alternative is tragic and devastating.


The religious leaders were not happy with Jesus. His parables about the Kingdom of God always offended them and made them look corrupt, crooked and hypocritical in the eyes of the people. But Jesus was simply teaching the truth, and part of that truth was that these people only looked godly and heaven worthy on the outside, but actually were not! According to Jesus’ parables and what he implied about them, they were wicked tenants in God’s employ who refused to serve him nor to give him the fruit of his own vineyard! They were also invitees to the Son of God’s wedding feast, but turned the invitation down for having better and more important things to do! Some of them tried to come to the wedding feast, but were turned out because they came wearing their own clothes rather than the wedding clothes the King provided. Finally when they heard Jesus’ last words: “Many are invited, but few are chosen”, they couldn’t take it any longer, and went out to make plans on how to trap him in his own words. (15) And when they had thought of a clever way to trap him, here’s what they did: Look at verses 16-17. “They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’”


It’s a question regarding the tax issue: Whether paying taxes to Caesar was the right or he wrong thing to do— for the Jews of that time. As we know, they were under the conquest of Rome and Caesar was the supreme ruler of all Roman lands, who had the right to impose taxes on all his subjects. That they had to or were forced to pay taxes to Rome was never an issue. No one could oppose what Rome wanted, especially in paying taxes. But the issue these clever people brought to Jesus was about whether it was a right thing for a Jew to pay taxes to Rome or not— that was the question or debate! This question has always existed as long as the human societies existed in this world. What is the right answer to this question? Actually, there is no right answer, nor wrong answer for that matter. Yet people have always debated this question and answered it according to their own wisdom and convictions— and they are also judged by the very answer they give. For this reason, the religious leaders together with Herod’s people brought this question to Jesus demanding that he give them an answer. Matthew simply tells us that they planned to trap him. But Luke tells us even more than this; He tells us that they intended to arrest him based on the answer he gave. (Luke 20:20) They were now absolutely certain that their question, however Jesus may answer, would condemn him one way or another. How so? Well, if he answered “No, it is not right to pay taxes to Rome”, Rome would arrest him for mutiny and civil disobedience. And if his answer were to be, “Yes, it is right to pay taxes to Rome”, the people would turn away from him as a collaborator with Rome. Surely it was a trap that even if they were to ask the question of themselves, they would be trapped! They were certain that Jesus’ answer would be “no” for he was known to be a good Jew who deeply cared for the welfare of his people.


And it’s absolutely remarkable that Jesus never answered the question. Actually his answer may have gone either way. In a sense he said “yes” and “no”. But Jesus’ answer isn’t meant to be a clever answer. It was meant to be absolutely founded in the Scriptures, in the wisdom of God’s word. In the Bible, often there is a third answer, that is, something that goes beyond simple yes or no. And this third answer goes for almost any and all questions that otherwise seem to be clear cut for most people— especially for Christians or God fearing people in general. Those who usually view things from the world’s perspective alone, often limit things to the simple yes or no. They are heavily influenced by the human view of what is right and what is wrong. But the Lord Jesus who is God in the flesh sees things differently. He sees them from above, from God’s perspective. And most things are not always simple as “right” or “wrong”, “ye­s” or “no”. Taxes for example are essential, yet at the same time, they are also burdensome.  There can be no answer to this question. So how do we answer a question like this, a question that seems to have no right or wrong answer? Philosophy? Human wisdom? Not really! Perhaps the best way is to look for answers in the Bible. God our God always has an answer, even though this answer may at times go beyond the human limits of our vision. Jesus answered these people. And his answer was beyond the right and wrong, yes and no. His answer went to a deeper place than your and my personal finances or even deeper than issues of social justice! His answer went as deep as the heart. Why? Because when he looked into the hearts of those who usually ask such questions, he saw problems in their hearts that go way beyond the superficial issues that usually people get all tangled up with that they cannot see God and what God has to say. Jesus saw the problem of sin— which an answer of right or wrong, yes or no— would be insufficient and could not solve. In most issues that trouble us in this life, there may be some human viewpoint or opinion on how to deal with them. But Jesus teaches us to always look deeper! He challenges our hearts to deal with the usually underlying problem of sin, which itself gives rise to all our human or social or spiritual problems. It’s imperative then to look at how Jesus resolved this seemingly impossible question.


Look at verses 16-17 again. “They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’” This question was extremely tricky. They were referring to the poll tax imposed on the Jewish people by the Roman government. It was not a burdensome tax— maybe the equivalent of five dollars. But the Jewish people deemed this tax offensive to their religious law which forbid idolatry. At the same time, it was oppressive to most of those who lived from hand to mouth. Taxes were an amazing Roman tactical maneuver to keep people suffering and too weak to resist injustice. The question they brought Jesus was such a clever trap simply because it touched a sore point in people’s hearts and lives. Not only were they oppressed by Rome, but they were supposed to pay taxes to keep that evil system running! Imagine how evil these people had to be to use people’s suffering to trap Jesus! These taxes didn’t hurt them much because they had money. But they knew that even a dollar would make a big difference to the people’s livelihood. And Jesus had to answer their question, because all the people were now hanging on every word he said. In a sense, he was compelled to oppose the tax because it caused so much suffering to the people.


The few moments between their question and Jesus’ answer must have been tense. Even the disciples were caught up in this trap! Even the disciples wanted to know what Jesus thought about the poll tax. It was like the trap of being asked on the issue of abortion or the death penalty. All such questions are potential subtle traps that gain strength from people’s own hurts and pains, and from which there is no escape. All who are trapped by such questions, if they are not properly equipped with the word of God, will ultimately end up with one human view or another— and whatever the answer can never satisfy one’s soul or solve the problem at hand. All the people now were waiting expectantly to see how Jesus would answer. Would he please the people, or please Rome. Which side is he on? These people were even trickier when they talked about Jesus’ justice and his love for speaking the truth disregarding people and their rank. They reminded him that he was known not to care about appearances but to speak the truth even at the cost of his life. All eyes were now on Jesus to see what he would say. The smile on these snake’s faces must have widened as they anticipated Jesus’ answer. Either way, he was going to be in Roman custody or no longer a threat to their religious enterprise.


Look at verses 18-21. “But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, ‘You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.’ They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, ‘Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?’ ‘Caesar’s,’ they replied. Then he said to them, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’” Only Jesus could answer like this, [and maybe Ike, but no one else.] But Jesus answered like this not out of cleverness. He did so because he usually looks beyond the question or the issue of debate— no matter how serious or sincere or painful it may be! Jesus looks at the heart and sees the cause of such painful and troublesome issues as taxes or any other social issue that’s usually a sore point and a cause of suffering to people. Jesus knew that these religious people who were trying to trap him, as well all the other people, had a bigger problem than taxes. Jesus knew that the tax problem is a sore point for the people not because they were supposed to pay money they don’t have, but because they had a serious sin problem before God. The underlying sin problem was selfishness. In reality, they neither wanted to give Caesar nor even God anything! In their own heart and mind, they wanted to keep everything for themselves alone. Whether they were rich or poor, religious or lay person, a disciple or ordinary person, everyone is selfish. They all hated to give anyone anything! Tax was such a painful public problem that it masqueraded a deeper problem— that of selfishness. Jesus was not going to be trapped by this at all. He always considered that when people have problems with anything, usually at heart it is a sin problem.


In this case the underlying problem was the sin of selfishness. Jesus did exactly they had praised him for. He spoke the truth. His answer was clear and very unpopular. No one wanted to hear Jesus say “give Caesar” and no one wanted to be reminded to “give to God what belongs to God”. Still, Jesus honestly addressed the sin problem of selfishness with hope that what he said would reach into their troubled hearts and bring them some healing. Jesus reminded them of two things. First, he reminded them all that they all had a responsibility towards Caesar! Who’s Caesar? The Caesar of the day was Rome. But the day to day Caesars in our lives is perhaps our neighbor or the stranger—  or whomever we ordinarily think is not our responsibility, nor do we feel responsibility towards. So, Jesus reminded them and us that we have an obligation towards Caesar, be it the government or our neighbor or even the stranger. All people are born selfish. People usually believe that they have a responsibility towards their family or friend and most believe that their responsibilities end there. But clearly they don’t! From where God is standing, our responsibilities extend to everyone, as long as we consider ourselves his children. This is why Jesus gave us all the responsibility to take care of his sheep— his children. Ever since Cain said to God, “am I my brother’s keeper” (Genesis 4), all people have been ever so selfish and uncaring and numb about all others. We, as God’s children should know that selfishness is sin— it’s a disease. And every one of us should deal with it first before dealing with all other issues that seem to be troubling like taxes. How can we do so? We can if we come to God daily, always, repeatedly, with a humble heart and with a learning mind— to come and repent of our selfishness. After that, we ought to decide by faith to give to Caesar or “others” what God wants us to give them! I really believe that God wants us to give others many things that we usually don’t think about— and more than anything else, God wants us to give to others his word, his love, his gospel, his blessing and grace, our prayers— and not say to ourselves, “They are not my responsibility” or “I’m not gifted that way”— that’s a copout! How often do we neglect our responsibilities to others and to God!


Another thing Jesus reminded them of was their responsibility towards God. Most people think that God is rich and doesn’t need anything. But yes God is rich— yet God imposed his own taxes on us because God knows our hearts so well. He knows how selfish his people can be. He knows that as much as we hate to give others anything we also hate to give God anything as well. Most disguise their selfishness with excuses, like the excuse of poverty— or hard living conditions— or sometimes even with genuine concerns. But God who knows our hearts, also knows that our main problem is not the money we give to God or the little time we have to serve him or the little we have to give others. Jesus fully understands that our problem is selfishness— even with God. When God in his love for his redeemed people imposed his taxes, he wanted all of us to learn the higher nobler way— the way of sacrifice— and the way of love— and the way of compassion. Unless we strive to overcome selfishness and decide to give God what belongs to God, whether it is material things or time or service or whatever else we know we should give— we won’t really be able to learn his own provision in our lives. We may know some of it. But we won’t really know the depth of his grace— not until we taste and imitate his sacrificial character.


God doesn’t want his people to be selfish. He wants us to be sacrificial even to the point of giving our lives in serving God and others. So Jesus didn’t answer their question. He only told to them what problem they had, and needed to work on, which is usually the cause of all unsolved and pressing issues in their lives. According to Jesus, the problem is never taxes nor anything else! The problem is always our own hearts, and how we resolve our issues with God overseeing our lives. When we solve the problem in our hearts, all other problems become mostly as nothing. Let’s always remember Jesus’ words, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” And may God give us the grace to put away selfishness and become sacrificial in our service to God and to others— especially the helpless and lost to whom God is eager to send us. Amen!


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