Matthew 22:15—22

The question of paying taxes is not a new one. Only the strangest among us think paying taxes is a good thing! Given the massive amounts of money our government confiscates from its citizens, does any of us know where it goes? Can the lawmakers even account for how they spend our money? For most of us, the subject of paying taxes is merely an intellectual exercise; for fear of punishment by the state, we will pay our taxes, whether we like it or not; whether we think it is good idea or not.

For Christians, talking heads on the right and the left should not shape our opinion of this inescapable issue. The Bible needs to be our guide in how we think about the issue of taxes, just as it serves as our guide for every issue in life.

In this group of verses, three groups of Jewish religious leaders question Jesus. This whole exchange is more or less found in each of the Synoptic Gospels (see Mark 12:13—17 and Luke 20:20—44). The purpose of this questioning of Jesus is to prove that Jesus was no better than any other Rabbi of His day, and to hopefully use His own words against Him. In reading through these verses, we can really appreciate the wisdom of our Lord. He was wise and cleverly challenges His challengers with a question of His own, which they cannot answer. It is probable that this challenge of Jesus took place Tuesday or Wednesday of Passion Week.

1. The trap is laid, Matthew 22:15—16a

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians.

This was a very bad for the Pharisees. A few hours earlier, Jesus had a run-in with them and, we might say, embarrassed them by means of cleverly using their tactics against them (Matthew 21:23—32). They had become determined to kill Jesus somehow, but they were fearful of the people and where therefore afraid to attack Jesus personally.

So, the Pharisees had been effectively silenced by Jesus. This trouncing, however, did not deter them one iota, and so they schemed a stealth attack on Jesus, putting their “disciples” to work, along with the Herodians. A common enemy often makes strange bedfellows, and Jesus was the common enemy of the religious Pharisees and the political Herodians. The Herodians were an intensely partisan political group that supported the Herod family. They cared very little about the Law and Commandments, and in fact the whole reason for their existence was to support the Herodian dynasty because they viewed the Herods as the political saviors of Israel. So it was very odd for a completely secular group to join forces with a completely religious group, but then Jesus always forces people to choose sides.

At this time in Jewish history, there were three philosophical sects among the Jews. According to the secular historian Josephus, these were the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. The Essenes are not mentioned anywhere in the Bible, but thanks to them and their work in preserving the Biblical text, we have many ancient manuscripts of the Old Testament. You may not have heard of the Essenes by name, but most people have heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls; these were produced by the Essene community. Very little is known about the Essenes, but most scholars are convinced they were staunch supporters and followers of Herod Antipas.

The Pharisees, instigators of this plot to trap Jesus, were very clever. They knew the Herodians would have been annoyed with Jesus’ royal entry into Jerusalem. They would have viewed Him as a threat to Herod because He still held sway over so many people. The Pharisees, for their part, hated Rome, hated Herod even more, but they hated Jesus most of all.

2. The tricky question, 22:16b—17

Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”

It was the great statesman, and the only Jewish-born Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Benjamin Disraeli, who once remarked:

Everyone likes flattery; and when you come to Royalty you should lay it on with a trowel.

It seems the young men sent to question Jesus understood this, and they laid on the flattery thick! After such compliments, how could Jesus not speak? To not offer an answer would have been evidence that this rabbi, this Jesus, was not really a man of wisdom or integrity. Like all flattery, though, they were thoroughly unfair and certainly unethical. What they were trying to do was throw Jesus of track—catch Him off guard—by suggesting that He always told the truth and that the ideas of others never influenced Him in any way. Luke gets it right when he refers to these men as “spies” in his account (Luke 20:20). They hid their true intent under a cloak of flattery.

Their question was, at first glance, a simple one: Should they (Jews) pay taxes to the Emperor, or not? This particular tax (Greek kensos, “tribute”) was not an income tax or a sales tax, but more of a poll tax, that was levied, not on Roman citizens, but on aliens living in Roman territory. This particular tax was highly offensive to the Jews, who themselves were no strangers to paying taxes! Their own religious tradition was chock-full of taxes. This poll tax was hated by the Jews because it was a constant reminder that they were living in subjection to a foreign power in their own land.

Obviously, these men had no interest in learning what Jesus thought. They knew what the answer was already. Remember, the Herodians especially would have viewed the paying of taxes as their “patriotic duty.” It was, in fact, a trick question. If Jesus had answered negatively, they could have accused Him of being a political agitator and troublemaker. If Jesus had answered positively, then He could not have been the Messiah in the eyes of the common Jew.

3. A straight answer, 22:18—20

Jesus’ answer was not only straight, it was stunning. We might look at Jesus’ answer as almost harsh, but as one scholar remarked,

Nothing could exceed the insidious hypocrisy of this attack on Jesus.

What do we admire most about Jesus’ answer? His incredible insight into the hearts and motives of these men? Or the lightening fast way in which His mind produced yet another answer that would shut down His critics? At the outset, Jesus’ answer wasn’t so much about paying the poll tax as it was establishing for all eternity a principle that should guide believers as they seek for the right relationship between living as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven and living on earth.

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 image is this? And whose inscription?”

Jesus knew immediately what was going on and He wasn’t afraid to confront the men; He wanted them to know that He knew liars when He saw them. He knew their character and their purpose. Jesus called them “hypocrites.” He would use this word numerous times in the next two chapters. A hypocrite is a “pretender” or a “play actor,” and it perfectly described these questioners.

In an instant, Jesus not only confronted these hypocrites, but also took complete charge of the situation before they realized it! In asking for a coin, Jesus is choosing to answer these men on His terms, not theirs. Some scholars make much of this, suggesting that Jesus was so broke that He didn’t even have a denarius (about twenty cents), although it is probably better to view this whole episode with the coin as one powerful, indisputable illustration. By holding this denarius in His hand, Jesus is directing the attention of His listeners to it; to what is on it. In fact, He asks that very question: What is on this coin. In the minds of the hypocrites, there must have been a couple of lines of thought. The Herodians must have wondered if Jesus would now proceed to insult and belittle the house of Herod and to encourage not paying the tax. The disciples of the Pharisees, on the other hand, must have been thinking about the insult of the tax and the sin of just holding a coin with an “image” stamped on it. After all, Caesar was proclaimed to be a “god” by the very coin Jesus was now holding. The inscription on the coin read:

Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus

And on the other side:

Highest Priest

4. The essence of the teaching, 22:21—22

In response to the first question of Jesus, the questioners replied honestly—Caesar’s image was on the coin. What else could they say? Jesus forced these men to tell the truth, and this was first truthful thing they had said so far.

Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” (verse 21b)

In looking at this answer, four points become clear.

First, Jesus was not, as some might think, evading the issue. Clearly, Jesus was telling these hypocrites to “pay the tax.” It is not dishonoring to God to honor the king for the privileges of living under his rule. Nobody likes to pay taxes, but living in an orderly society with police protection, roads, courts, and other things, demands that those things be paid for by those who enjoy them.

Second, Jesus qualified His admonition to pay the tax by saying that even though they (or any citizen, for that matter) where in possession of the coin, it really didn’t belong to them in the first place; it really belonged to Caesar. The tax—the coin—was his due. The rationale could not be faulted by the Pharisees: if the coin had Caesar’s picture on it, then it must be his. Years later, Paul would reiterate this principle in Romans 13:6—

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.

Does this mean that as Christians, we should pay the maximum amount of tax, never taking deductions or claiming credits? Dos this mean that the money we work so hard to earn isn’t really ours? No, this is not what Jesus is getting at. His point: for believers, our treasure really isn’t on earth, but in the Kingdom. We should not get too attached to the things of this world.

Third, and here is the profound principle for believers: we must also render to God what He is due. Why did Jesus bring this up in a discussion of taxes? Remember to whom Jesus is talking: the Herodians and the the students of the Pharisees. So far in Jesus’ answer, He had dealt with the Herodians. This part of the answer must have spoken volumes to the young Pharisees. Rendering to God His due was far more than meticulously sticking to the tithe. Pharisees, and indeed Christians need to give back what belongs to God. And what do any of us possess that He hasn’t given us? The one who refuses to give generously to God stubbornly refuses to acknowledge God’s lordship over His life. Erasmus, the great Dutch humanist who helped correct the corrupted Latin Vulgate Bible in the early 1500’s had a slightly different take on this.

Give back to God that which has the image and superscription of God—the soul.

Lastly, by drawing a distinction between what belonged to God and what belonged to Caesar, Jesus was completely rejecting the claim on the coin; that Caesar was divine. Caesar was not a god, and Caesar’s kingdom was only a physical one, but God’s kingdom transcends all the kingdoms of this world and He is over all kingdoms. The Emperor should be respected and his laws obeyed where those laws do not contradict or conflict with the laws of God. However, where there is a clash between the two kingdoms, the overriding rule of Acts 5:29 must be followed—

We must obey God rather than human beings!

This amazing answer completely shut down Jesus’ questioners. There was no desire to debate Him on this.

When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away. (verse 22)

We don’t know if they learned their lesson; probably not. Both Paul and Peter certainly did (Romans 13:1—7 and 1 Peter 2:13—17). Jesus’ short but clever answer not only answered the question He was asked, but also served to lay down the principle that needs to guide Christians as they walk that fine line between honoring the Lord and the State.

(c)  2010 WitzEnd


  1. 2 Seth November 21, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    how much should we pay then?should it be more than tithe?

  2. 3 Dr. Mike November 21, 2013 at 4:16 pm

    As to how much tax to pay, the easy answer is: all that you owe. The government is generally inept at everything they do (see ObamaCare, the DMV, the TSA, FDA, DHS, HHS, etc) save one thing…nobody can collect taxes like the IRS! Do you have a choice? We can debate the tax rate, which is a discussion for another day. So pay all the tax you owe, but NO more. In other words, find all the legal ways you can to pay as little as possible.

    Now, as to tithing. No Christian is “under the tithe.” There is no evidence, Biblical or otherwise, that the apostolic church practiced the tithe. It’s safe to say that the law of the tithe was given to the Jews alone. Christians however, are to give generously to the work of the of Lord. This is the very clear teaching of Paul: “Let everyone give as his heart tells him, neither grudgingly nor under compulsion, for God loves the man who gives cheerfully. After all, God can give you everything that you need, so that you may always have sufficient both for yourselves and for giving away to other people. As the scripture says: “He has dispersed abroad, he has given to the poor; his righteousness remains forever.” (2 Cor. 9:7 JBP) So the real question is: do we pay more government at all levels than we give to the work of the Lord? You may say, I have to pay my taxes, to which I would say, And you’re not obligated to honor God in your giving? As an old pastor once remarked, “If God possesses your heart, you can be darn sure he possesses your wallet.”

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