Year A 29th Sunday: Matthew 22:15-22

22:15   Then the Pharisees went away to work out between them

how to trap him in what he said.

22:16   And they sent their disciples to him, together with some Herodians, to say,

'Master, we know that you are an honest man and teach the way of God in all honesty, and that you are not afraid of anyone, because human rank means nothing to you.

22:17   Give us your opinion, then. Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?'

22:18   But Jesus was aware of their malice and replied,

'You hypocrites! Why are you putting me to the test?

22:19   Show me the money you pay the tax with.' They handed him a denarius,

22:20   and he said, 'Whose portrait is this? Whose title?'

22:21   They replied, 'Caesar's.'

Then he said to them, 'Very well, pay Caesar what belongs to Caesar --

and God what belongs to God.'

22:22   When they heard this they were amazed; they left him alone and went away.

Context & Information

Jesus just told three parables with the same content: that God’s traditional people did not live according to the Law, the convention between God and his people. The Kingship of God will be given to other people, Jesus’ disciples. Now the Pharisees want to trap him in his words. They send some of their disciples to him (they don’t come themselves!) together with Herodians, a monstrous alliance. The Herodians were followers of king Herod, a friend of the Roman occupiers. The Pharisees wanted to live as pure as possible and kept their distance from the Romans. But for once they found each other.

They want to catch him out, and they do it with the honey of compliments, ‘You are honest...; you teach the way of God in honesty...’ Their question, ‘Is it permitted to pay tax to the emperor or not?’

Jesus’ reply is clear enough, ‘Hypocrites! Why are you tempting me?’ According to Jesus’ word they do the same thing as Satan did in the desert (4:1): they are ‘tempting’ Jesus. They try to disturb his vocation and his teaching. If Jesus answers, ‘Of course it is permitted...’, then the Pharisees will cry out that he is compromising the Law of God. If he answers, ‘Of course not...’ then the Herodians will say that he is rebellious against the Romans and that he threatens the fragile balance in the political situation.

Jesus asks for a tax coin. They show it to him. We may suppose that these were the Herodians. Pharisees would not touch such in impure coin. Jesus points to the portrait of Caesar suggesting that this equals a signature, a proof of ownership, ‘Whose image is this? Whose inscription?’ Unfortunately our translation gives ‘portrait’, but Jesus uses the word ‘image’. A decisive word in this context. For his conclusion is, ‘So give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.’ What bears the image of Caesar belongs to Caesar. To God belongs... that which bears his image. But the Jews didn’t make images of God, did they? Why not? Because in the beginning God had made human beings according to his image. People were the only phenomenon in the Jewish culture that bore the image of God. That was their vocation. ‘... and give to God what belongs to God.’

Of course they are flabbergasted.

Jesus’ answer is not only proof of how clever he is. It reflects his spirituality. Each and everything in everyday life was able to remind him of Gods presence, and could be a call to seek and to serve the Lord in everything, even in coins of the hated Roman tax.

Picture Meditation

The artist divides his picture into two parts. On the left side we see the same three people three times. In the upper left corner they are speaking with each other in the collonade of the temple; then they descend to Jesus and finally they are speaking with him. In the meantime they are joined by a women and a man with a Jewish skull cap who is showing the tax coin to Jesus. Are they representing the disciples who were sent to Jesus instead of the Pharisees themselves?

On the right side we see Jesus (in red), Peter (with beard) and two other disciples. The left side is dominated by the palace of Caesar; the right side by the heaven, pictured as the sun with the shadow of a house in the centre of it.

The pious people behave very submissively; the man with the coin is kneeling; the two behind him are humbly slightly bowing; the two behind them...?

The artist doesn’t catch Jesus at the moment that he is saying, ‘Hypocrites.’ No, Jesus gives his answer, subtly expressed in the movements of his hands. The right hand belongs to the left side, dominated by Caesar in his palace. The left hand is pointing to the heaven.

This composition illustrates more than the message in the Gospel. Jesus’ right hand constitutes a connexion between the two worlds: between his world and their world. He stretches out his hand to them, as the man with the coin does to him! Is this picture at the same time an illustration... or at least a prayer of rapprochement, reconciliation?

Meditation by Fr Dries van den Akker S.J