IN RESPONSE to Jesus’s parables against them, the religious leaders now present a barrage of hostile questioning. Although they are divided among themselves — in both doctrine and political strategy — they are united in their antipathy to him.
The Pharisees are the first to attack, and they bring the Herodians with them. On the face of it, this is an unlikely coalition. The Herodians were tactical supporters of Roman interests, whereas the Pharisees divided between those who tolerated imperial occupation and those who advocated armed revolt (Anna Case-Winters, Belief — A Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew).
The Pharisees’ aim is to “entrap” Jesus: to ask a question that cannot be answered without either antagonising the crowds who follow him or pitching him into perilous conflict with the occupying powers. Bringing the Herodians with them raises the stakes and increases the likelihood of violent punishment if Jesus advocates non-payment of the imperial tax.
One irony of this scene is that, within days, Jesus will have lost the support of the crowds and will be crucified by the Romans. The “trap” which his enemies seek to create could lead only to the very fate that Jesus chose when he set his face towards Calvary.
Just as the fate that they seek to engineer is the one that he has freely chosen, so the words that they intend as disarming flattery bear a truth that their speakers cannot recognise. Jesus is indeed “sincere” — he “teaches the way of God”, and does not regard people with “partiality”. It is precisely his clear-sightedness, unencumbered by vanity or greed, which makes Jesus “aware of their malice”.
Jesus asks the Pharisees for a coin, and then asks whose image it bears. These coins would have borne the image of the Emperor Tiberius, declaring him to be the “August son of the Divine High Priest Augustus”.
In declaring that they should “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s”, Jesus is not delineating two distinct spheres of equally legitimate sovereignty. Such an idea would have been unthinkable to any faithful Jew; for “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24.1).
Rather, his answer is a “skilful delimitation” of the meaning of Roman taxation. Jesus “deftly permits the paying of taxes, even to a foreign power whose rule over Israel was illegitimate, while at the same time asserting the sovereignty of God” (Donald Senior, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Matthew).
For all his delusions of omnipotence, Caesar’s power is ultimately compassed in that of God. Jesus’s attitude to tax anticipates his attitude to Pilate at his trial. He does not offer violent resistance, precisely because he is not concerned to replace one empire with another. Jesus embodies a very different Kingdom — and offers a gentle and yet confident assertion that true sovereignty lies with the Lord (John 19.11).
This same attitude to imperial power is evident in our first reading, which declares that the Gentile ruler Cyrus will be the instrument of God’s purposes. Indeed, more surprising than God’s anointing of a non-Jew is his declaration to Cyrus in verse 5 that “you do not know me”.
As Theodoret of Cyr observes, this emperor “also was a slave to the error of idolatry. Even though he had received kingship from the God of the universe, and obtained such great assistance from him, he had not known the dispenser of these benefits.”
The outworking of God’s purposes will, at times, be imperceptible to those at the heart of empire. The true significance of things is not visible from imperial courts and palaces, but is discerned by those who trust in the Lord in the midst of exile and violent occupation.
Our Psalm is a joyful affirmation of the sovereignty of the God of Israel. It dismisses the “gods” (elohim) of the powerful nations that surrounded Israel as “nobodies” (elilim). God’s people are not to be overwhelmed by the might of these nations, but to trust in his providence, even when outward circumstances may seem to belie it.
The growth of the Early Church flowed from precisely such confidence in the face of empire. Paul writes to the Thessalonians that they are famed for turning from “idols” to serve the “true and living God”. Their allegiance is no longer to this world’s powers, but to the peaceable Kingdom that has dawned in Jesus Christ.