Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 22:19-21a (Holman) “Show Me the coin used for the tax.” So
they brought Him a denarius. “Whose image and inscription is
this?” He asked them. “Caesar’s,” they said to Him.
The Pharisees and Herodians, by joining together, achieved a very practical objective. Whatever side Jesus landed on, the report of His words would be reported to respective offended constituents by credible witnesses.
Exposing the leaders’ hypocrisy (v. 18) would have been an ample answer to their question. Jesus could have justifiably ended the conversation here, but He chose to press ahead. These were powerful, influential men, but Jesus was not intimidated. He let His wisdom combat their wickedness, and won. He always does. They hated Him but could not destroy Him. The same is true for us. We won. Foes may oppose the Church but cannot destroy it.
I rejoice whenever I read of Jesus using a sermon prop. Object lessons are effective teaching tools, hard to beat. “Coin” translates “nomisma”, the basis of our word “numismatics”, coin collecting. When I collected Wheat Back pennies and Buffalo nickels, I subscribed to Numismatist magazine.
In our text, Jesus did not own this denarius. To bring home a potent lesson, He used a coin the leaders possessed. It helped prove their hypocrisy.
Julius Caesar was the first Roman to stamp his image on the denarius. The coin in our text would have had on its obverse an image of the Emperor, at this time Tiberius. The reverse had the words Pontif Maxim (High Priest).
The denarius was Rome’s basic coin for almost 500 years (211 BC to 270 AD). It is commonly collected. Archaeologists regularly unearth them. About the size of our dime, they were Roman silver coins, a daily wage for workingmen and soldiers. Workers paid for everything out of it. Soldiers only bought food. This good pay is why many wanted to be Roman soldiers.
Rome had ruled Israel since Pompey had conquered it some 100 years before this (63 BC). For about 23 years (6 AD) they had been forced to pay the tax discussed in our text. The people hated this tax. They were especially galled at having to pay the salaries of the soldiers who occupied their land.
Matt. 22:21b Then He said to them, “Therefore, . . .”
Jesus now used their own coin and words against them to make a significant point. People still marvel at His history-changing answer.
It has always been a given that whoever produces the currency of a nation is its actual ruler. Controlling the money controls the economy and thus controls the nation. By using Rome’s coins, the leaders were for all practical purposes unwittingly admitting they were under Caesar’s authority.
The leaders and marketplaces in Israel were using legal tender made by the Roman government. The image on the coin’s front was Caesar’s. Its superscription on the back was Caesar’s. Its manufacturing was Caesar’s. They were using Caesar’s coin. It belonged to him. Thus their nation did too.
We admit the government owns our money by the fact all our paper currency displays the words “legal tender”. Currency is a gift provided by government to facilitate commerce, to make it easier for citizens to get and give stuff. Living in a nation ruled by law, we are protected in owning the property our money buys, but the currency itself belongs to the government.
To be brutally honest, even our ownership of property is iffy. A prime evidence of government ownership is its right of eminent domain, the power to take private property for public use. Fortunately in our country the use of eminent domain is limited to “just compensation”, but it exists nonetheless.
One more story will help us see our money belongs to government. Let me remind you of what happened in the USA during the week of March 6-13, 1933. Our President, Franklin Roosevelt, enforced a bank holiday. He closed all banks and froze all financial transactions. Ever since this, only Federal Reserve-approved banks have been allowed to operate in the USA.
I have friends who fear our government, and transact with currency as rarely as possible. They opt instead to seek ways to live on the barter system.
One reason for this is to reduce taxes. It also all-out acknowledges that our currency belongs to the government, an entity they do not trust.
The problem in doing this is; it is impossible to tell whether the taxes are being withheld due to convictions or stinginess. “Suspect all scruples that move us to refuse to give or pay; for conscience, backed by self-interest, is apt to be over-sensitive” (Glover). A claim to not pay taxes, for however good a reason, could be seen as a pretense to save money. Be careful about refusing to pay taxes. Motives can become hazy. Seek advice from others.
Matt. 22:21c “. . . give back to Caesar, . . .”
“Give back”—in other words, “Pay it back because it is his to begin with”. If Caesar’s currency fills your wallet, he has the right to command it to be returned. Paying taxes is not only encouraged; it is a moral obligation.
Jesus told His hearers to pay taxes to the godless government that would soon crucify Him. Everything we have belongs to God, and He has commanded that some of His money is to go to the government, however bad it is. Giving Caesar what is his is a part of giving Jesus what is His.
This means God okays letting some of His money be used for things He does not want to have done. Yet no one blames God of doing wrong.
This reminds us that what the government does with our money is not the same as our directly using it that way. “We must not be over-scrupulous in charging ourselves with responsibilities not belonging to us” (Glover).
I wonder if we USA Christians expect too much of our government with regard to enforcing Christian values. Our Civil War used government to end slavery, thereby establishing a precedent for us. We USA believers have ever since tended to look to government to solve social ills: child labor laws, Prohibition, etc. Did we let the pendulum swing too far that direction?
We are currently seeing this quandary played out on an international stage. Few things have created more contention between church and state in my lifetime than the issue of gay marriage. Feelings run deep on both sides.
The struggle has taken on worldwide proportions. Governments are going one way; Bible Christians refuse to budge from going the other way.
Roman Catholicism is in the thick of this fray. We Baptists feel the Pope has neither special priestly authority nor any corner on God’s wisdom, but we readily acknowledge he is the most influential figure in Christendom.
What he says matters. Recently he has felt the need to speak about gay marriage. I appreciate his unwavering quickness to say the Church will never sanction same sex marriages. We cannot deem them Bible marriages.
But can governments allow civil unions, or whatever else they call them? The Pope says yes, claiming governments might be justified in instituting civil unions that help regulate cohabitation consequences, such as assuring medical care, and guaranteeing inheritance rights.
He said it is not the Church’s business to interfere with legal solutions to complex problems. Some things are outside the Church’s purview. We do not change our position, but do accept the fact the government changed.
Lloyd-Jones, my favorite writer of the twentieth century, said Christians have political influence in a society at large only as long as, and to the extent that, they have clout at the ballot box. We are watching our wallup fade in the USA. This is forcing us to face a new reality. Government is not going to be as responsive to our beck and call as it has been before.