Giving God what is Truly His: Matthew 22:15-22

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As we continue in Matthew’s gospel moving through the week of Jesus’ crucifixion, we come to an event that stands out in my mind as both brilliant on the part of those who wanted to trap Jesus, and brilliant on the part of Jesus for His response avoiding the trap. During this week, it seems as though the religious leaders amplify their attempts to discredit Jesus, or at the very least, during this week, the gospel writers direct their attention onto these leaders’ challenges more than in the earlier portion of Jesus’ ministry.

Our passage for this episode focuses on one of the more interesting challenges in my mind. We can find it in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 22, and we will read it from the New Century Version of the Bible. Starting in verse 15, Matthew tells us:

15 Then the Pharisees left that place and made plans to trap Jesus in saying something wrong. 16 They sent some of their own followers and some people from the group called Herodians. They said, “Teacher, we know that you are an honest man and that you teach the truth about God’s way. You are not afraid of what other people think about you, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 So tell us what you think. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Before continuing to read Jesus’ response, I want to pause and explain this seemingly no-win scenario. The Pharisees and the Herodians were enemies, but in this one instant, they temporarily ally in order to catch Jesus say something wrong.

From how I understand this event, the Pharisees claimed all life was dedicated to God, and this conflicted with allegiance to the state government that the Herodians supported. In contrast, the Herodians promoted allegiance to the state, and in this case to Herod and Rome, and their big emphasis was on the payment of taxes to support Rome.

Both sides emphasized money, and the Pharisees taught that money should go to the church first, whereas the Herodians taught that taxes should be paid first. Paying taxes was a form of giving allegiance, and the Pharisees taught that allegiance should only be given to God, while the Herodians taught that taxes and allegiance should be given to Rome.

In the minds of these two groups, together they could trap Jesus saying something He shouldn’t, and either Jesus would be discredited among the Pharisees and the religious system, or He would be in trouble with the government.

However, Jesus knew and saw this trap. Continuing reading in verse 18, Matthew tells us:

18 But knowing that these leaders were trying to trick him, Jesus said, “You hypocrites! Why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me a coin used for paying the tax.” So the men showed him a coin. 20 Then Jesus asked, “Whose image and name are on the coin?”

21 The men answered, “Caesar’s.”

Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and give to God the things that are God’s.”

22 When the men heard what Jesus said, they were amazed and left him and went away.

In Jesus’ response, we see an example of answering the issues at hand while avoiding the trap of choosing one side at the expense of another. Those challenging Jesus only saw two possible outcomes, because they had their focus entirely on the money portion of the debate. It never crossed their minds that all money with Caesar’s image was simply being loaned to them by the Roman government.

The response Jesus shared is brilliant because it amplified what we actually give God as being more than simply money. Looking at God’s blessing from the other direction, God has blessed us with so much more than money and what we are called to return to Him is more than simply money. While God can bless us with money, and while we are called to give tithes and offerings, God has given us much more than money, and without the other things God has blessed us with, money would be irrelevant.

Society also has more benefits than simply giving us money, but the majority of society’s benefits are supported in part by the monetary system of the society we are in, and in many ways, this makes money a more central theme in the society portion of this discussion.

I have heard people use this passage to support paying taxes and to refute the necessity of paying taxes. However, I believe both sides of this debate miss the much bigger challenge in Jesus’ response.

Leading into Jesus’ reply, we find an interesting description of Jesus shared by those bringing Jesus this challenge. Whether it was a Pharisee or a Herodian who asked the question in verse 16, he opens the question by saying, “Teacher, we know that you are an honest man and that you teach the truth about God’s way. You are not afraid of what other people think about you, because you pay no attention to who they are.

In my mind, this is an interesting way to describe Jesus. First, Jesus is described as a teacher, as an honest man, and as someone who teaches the truth about God’s way. Either this opening is an empty compliment from someone who doesn’t believe this, or it is a window into how these leaders understood Jesus, even if they didn’t like Him. Next, Jesus is described as someone who isn’t afraid of what other people think about Him and as someone who doesn’t pay attention to who other people are.

Is this an accurate description of Jesus?

As I look at Jesus’ ministry, I would agree that this is an accurate description. As I read the gospels, I see Jesus fulfilling the role of a teacher, Jesus living honestly, and Jesus teaching the truth about God’s way. I also see Jesus as someone who isn’t afraid of what other people think about Him. About the only potentially questionable descriptor is the last one, which is someone who doesn’t pay attention to who other people are.

Does Jesus ignore or not pay attention to who other people are?

In the context of the religious leaders of that day, the answer is definitely a yes. In first century culture, the religious leaders looked at race, nationality, age, and gender among other things to determine who to pay attention to and who to interact with. In contrast, Jesus didn’t selectively choose to help others based on physical appearance or any characteristic present. Jesus only focused on helping the specific need that an individual had, and He did this to show to those present that God is interested in helping each of us exactly where we need help.

With this framing of Jesus’ character and ministry, what can we then see in Jesus’ reply about taxes?

In my own mind, I see Jesus minimizing money to simply being a cultural tool that we use in the context of the society we live in. We pay tax to help support the society we live in, and specifically the services within our society.

To contrast this, Jesus challenges us to give to God what is God’s. When looking at our lives and when looking at what the Bible teaches, what is clearly God’s?

The clearest answer I see for this question is that our breath is God’s. At creation, God breathed life into humanity, and in many places in the Old Testament, the breath is described as returning to God when we die. Some might call this breath our spirit, but regardless of how the Hebrew word is translated, what God gave us when He created us returns to Him when we die.

God is not interested in our breath returning to Him before our mission on this earth is finished. Instead, God has loaned us breath so that we can fulfill the mission and purpose He has placed us on this earth to fulfill. In this challenge Jesus shares, I see Jesus challenging every person who has breath to dedicate their breath, or we could say their spirit, or we could say their lives, to God and to the mission He has placed us on this earth to accomplish!

As we come to the end of another podcast episode, here are the challenges I will leave you with:

As I always challenge you to do, continue seeking God first in your life and choose to place Him first. Choose to give God what is God’s and to dedicate your breath, your spirit, and your life to Him and fulfilling the purpose He placed you on this earth to accomplish.

If you don’t know what God has placed you on this earth to do, be sure to take this question to God in prayer. Through prayer and studying the Bible for yourself, you are able to grow a strong, personal relationship with God, and the closer you grow to God, I believe the clearer you will be able to see His mission for your life.

And as I end every set of challenges by saying in one way or another, never stop short of, back away from, chicken out of, or give up on where God wants to lead you to in your life with Him!

Year in Matthew – Episode 40: When some religious leaders bring the perfect trap question to Jesus, discover how Jesus both masterfully answers the challenge, and how Jesus amplifies our gifts to God as being much more than something money can buy.

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2 thoughts on “Giving God what is Truly His: Matthew 22:15-22

  1. These are good words. Thanks for sharing your insights in this passage. One aspect of this passage I heard a preacher mention years ago is that while the money had Caesar’s image, humans have God’s image on us. So, we are to give God ourselves, because he made us in his image.