Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Matthew 22:15-22
Proper 24 A - Year A

Other texts:

Isaiah 45-1-7
Psalm 96-1-9, (10-13)
1 Thessalonians 1-1-10
Matthew 22-15-22 (at Textweek)

The last three weeks we have looked at parables about doing (or not doing) what God (father/landowner/king) wanted (or submitting one's self to their authority): sons working in the vineyard, tenants giving the owner the fruit, and invitees accepting the king's invitation to his son's wedding feast and wearing the proper garb.

With our text, we move out of the parable world into the real world of death and taxes! Our text is about taxes. It is followed with a question from the Sadducees about death (and resurrection) (22:23-33 -- which are the only verses in this chapter not assigned a Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary).

In 1789, Benjamin Franklin wrote in a letter to a friend, "In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes." Nearly 150 years later (1936), Margaret Mitchell used a similar phrase in Gone with the Wind: "Death and taxes and childbirth! There's never any convenient time for any of them."

The parables talk about God's authority. Our text is almost like a case study in applying God's authority to the real life situation of paying taxes.


There are four different words used in the NT for taxes.

The most general is telos (used of "taxes" in Mt 17:25; Ro 13:7)
The word in our text kensos is borrowed from Latin ("census") which was a tax paid by each adult to the government (Mt 17:25; 22:17, 19; Mk 12:14).
The word used in Luke's parallel phoros is the payment made by the people of one nation to another, with the implication that this is a symbol of submission and dependence. (Lu 20:22; 23:2; Ro 13:6, 7).
The final word, didrachmon, refers to the annual temple tax of two drachmos required from each male Jew (Mt 17:5).

My impression is that the kensos in our text is nothing quite like any of our taxes -- neither income, property, nor sales tax. The Oxford Companion admits that we know few details about this tax, but says: "... it consisted of a flat-rate personal tax on all men from age fourteen and women from age twelve to age sixty-five and was levied at least at the rate of one denarius (about a day's wage) per year. Later (we do not know when) it was combined with a percentage tax on property."

We need to keep in mind that Jews living in the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus was nothing like living in America in the 21th century. Their God-given homeland was under foreign occupation. According to Boring (Matthew, New Interpreters Bible), the "census tax," which was instituted in 6 CE when Judea became a Roman province, "triggered the nationalism that finally became the Zealot movement, which fomented the disastrous war of 66-70." There are some similarities to our historic "Boston Tea Party" -- except that the "American Zealots" won -- (but later the Native American Zealots lost).

Life in Matthew's 1st century was also different from American 21st century in that Christianity was an illegal religion, which occasionally resulted in persecution and death to the believers. While there is no indication of severe persecution of Christians in Matthew, there had been a few years earlier when Nero was emperor. That would make questions about paying taxes to the government even more crucial.

In both settings, the annual payment of this tax to Rome was a painful reminder of being in lands occupied by foreign powers who worshiped false gods. The tax could only be paid with Roman coins which were not just legal tender but also pieces of propaganda. Most of the coins contained an image of the Caesar with inscriptions proclaiming him to be divine or the son of a god. One common phrase on coins during the time of Jesus was: "Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest." "Graven images" and polytheism were blasphemous to both Jews and Christians. Thus paying taxes with Roman coins raised both political and religious issues.

What if our coins said something like: "George Walker Bush, august son of the divine George Herbert Walker Bush, President of the United States, the most powerful man on the planet"? Those who are sympathetic to the Democratic Party may view such money as evil. Similarly, what if all the money during the previous administration had pictures of William Jefferson Clinton on them and a saying about his virtues? I'm certain that many Republicans would refuse to carry or use such money. Every time they pulled out their money, they would be reminded that the enemy was in power. It may be significant that the pictures on all of our money are of dead people.

Not only with the required tax, but every time the Jews used Roman money, they were reminded that they were occupied and that the emperor was making himself another god -- something the Ten Commandments forbade the Jews to have. How different would it be if our pledge of allegiance said, "One nation, which is our god"? Would we Christians be able to pledge that?

I think that these illustrations about what's on the money and pledges give a bit of an indication what life was like for 1st century Jews in occupied Palestine.


Boring (Matthew, The New Interpreters Bible) comments:

Although the Herodians play no role in Matthew's time, he retains them from Mark, for they represent the overt supporters of the Roman regime and would support paying the tax. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were popular with the people because they in principle resented and resisted the tax, but did not go as far as the radical nationalists who publicly resisted its payment. [p. 420]


There is great irony in the complements given to Jesus. They say that he is "true" ("sincere" in NRSV, also meaning "truthful, honest, real, genuine"). A related word is used in: "You teach the way of God in truth." The next two lines are idiomatic. Literally: "It is not a concern to you about anyone; for you are not looking at the face of people." Paraphrastically, Jesus does not let other people determine his teaching or actions. In contrast to this, the chief priests and elders say, "we are afraid of the crowds." We were also told that the chief priests and Pharisees "feared the crowds" (21:46). They let others determine their actions.

While we hear the Herodians and disciples of the Pharisees say these things about Jesus, we also know that they are not being true. They are deceptive and conniving. They are seeking to trap Jesus. They address him as teacher and praise his genuine teaching, but they aren't really interested in learning from him. Later (v. 18) Jesus describes them as "malicious" or "evil" (poneria), "testing" or "tempting" (peirazo) him, and "hypocrites".

Their comments are also ironical because Jesus is concerned about other people. He heals the sick, frees the demon-possessed, forgives sinners, suffers and dies for the sake of the world. No one has cared for others as much as he did. Yet, at the same time, he doesn't do any of this to please the other people. His motivation is not what others might think of him (positive or negative), but to do the will of his father in heaven. "To fulfill all righteousness," to use his phrase from his baptism (Mt 3:15). As such, he illustrates what it means to live under God's authority.

Jesus answers the questioners in our text quite differently than those in Mt 17:24-27, when Peter is asked about paying the temple tax. Certainly there are some different nuances between paying a temple tax and a Roman tax; but there seems to be different motivations for asking the questions about taxes, too.

Some have also suggested that Jesus' response is ironic -- he doesn't literally mean what he says. I could, perhaps, imagine a sarcastic: "Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar," but a serious, "Give to God what belongs to God." However, I will approach these verses as meaning what they say, rather than an ironic retort.


Jesus asks them to show him a coin used for the tax. Commentaries differ on the importance of this question.

Carter (Matthew and the Margins) states:

That [Jesus] does not have a coin and that they bring him the denarius does not prove that Jesus refused to carry a coin which bore the emperor's image and titles, nor does it indicate their attitude to the tax. It is unclear whether they have a coin or have to go and procure one to bring to Jesus. [p. 439]

Boring (Matthew):

Jesus asks for the "legal tender" with which the tax is paid. He does not have it himself, but the Pharisees, in the sacred precincts of the Temple, produce the coin with its idolatrous image and inscription and acknowledge that they are Caesar's. [p. 420]

Long (Matthew):

When [Jesus] asks them for the tax coin, they unsuspectingly reach into their purses and withdraw the evidence that exposes them -- not him -- as deceptive and hypocritical compromisers. They are the ones carrying around Caesar's money, not Jesus; they are the ones who have the emperor's image in their pocketbooks; they are the ones who have already bought into the pagan system. [p. 251]


The word "give" in Jesus' answer, can mean "give back" (apodidomi). The word was used in the sense of "paying back" a debt in the parable of the unforgiving servant (18:25, 26, 28, 29, 30, 34). While not literally a "pay back," the word was used of the new tenants who will "give (back)" the owner the fruit at the proper time (21:41). The word carries the sense of giving (back) that which already belongs to the other person.

That thought is also conveyed with the phrases, "The things of Caesar" and "The things of God." The genitive case can denote possession -- the things that belong to Caesar or to God. How do we know what things belong to Caesar? They have his image ("head" in NRSV) on them! How do we know what things belong to God? They have God's image on them!

The word for "image" (eikon) is used in the LXX in Gen 1:26-27: "Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; . . . . So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them."

And in Gen 5:1: "This is the list of the descendants of Adam. When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God."

And in Gen 9:6: ". . . for in his own image God made humankind."

What are we to give to God? The things stamped with God's image -- us! We are to give God ourselves -- our whole selves -- not just some part.

Mark Allan Powell begins his introduction to Giving to God: The Bible's Good News about Living a Generous Life with this story.

Have you heard the story about the baptism of the Gauls? It may not be historically factual, but this is not a history book, so we won't worry too much about that.

The Gauls were a warlike people who in ancient times inhabited what is now France and Belgium. They spoke a Celtic language and were Druidic by religion. By the time of the Christian era they had been conquered by the Roman Empire and were supposedly under its control. The extent of this control varied, however, for the Gauls never did take too well to being conquered and there were numerous Gallic uprisings.

A number of Christian missionaries ventured into Gallic territory and, over time, many of the Gauls became Christians. As the story goes, when a converted warrior was baptized in a river or stream, he would hold one arm high in the air as the missionary dunked him under the water. This seemed a peculiar custom and the missionaries soon learned the reason for it. When the next battle or skirmish broke out, the warlike Gaul could proclaim "This arm is not baptized!", grab up his club or sword or ax, and ride off to destroy his enemy in a most unChristian manner.

As I've indicated, this story is probably not historically authentic. My guess is that it's a medieval version of what we would call an "urban legend" and I certainly do not intend to cast any aspersions on the Gauls or their descendants by repeating it. I just find the image so compelling: the picture of someone -- anyone -- trying to keep one part of their body, one aspect of their identity, free from the influence of baptism. [pp. xi-xii]

We are created in the image of God -- every tiny part of us. This means that the tiniest parts of our body, the smallest thoughts in our heads, etc. belong to God.

Some may give God their minds,
but have hearts far from God.
Some may give God their hearts,
but are unwilling to learn from God in the Word
Some may give God their muscles,
but are unwilling to bring their bodies to worship or education classes.
Many give God 1 or 2 hours a week,
but God wants all 168 hours a week.
Many give God 2% of their income, perhaps think about 10%
but God wants 100%.

We cannot say that "this part belongs to God, so I will give it to God." Everything we are and everything we have belongs to God. Everything we are and everything we have we are to give (back) to God. We are but mere managers or stewards of these gifts God has given to us.

Properly managing the money God has given us means some of it is to go to the government. In terms of paying the temple tax, Jesus told Peter to pay it "so that we do not give offense to them" (Mt 17:27). In our text, Jesus does say to give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar.

The thematic First Lesson (Isaiah 45:1-7) gives the example of Cyrus, a governmental leader of Persia, who was not a believer in Yahweh, yet who was God's anointed (messiah in Hebrew!), who would free the Israelites from their bondage in Babylonia. Governmental officials, even unbelieving ones, can be agents to bring about God's will on earth.

At the same time, I think that we as Christians and congregations need to struggle with our relationship with the State. What gods does our state worship and promote? I am very uncomfortable when they talk about a law against desecrating the flag. If it can be "desecrated," that implies that it is something "sacred". Can Christians believe that a flag is sacred? Should congregations voluntarily pay some local taxes if they expect services from the police or fire departments that are paid by those taxes?

Many years ago I attended a workshop on stewardship. The presenter made a comment that has stuck with me. He stated that he always makes it a point to give more to his church through his offerings than he gives to the government through his taxes. That was a way he could indicate the place of his greater allegiance -- who has the greater authority over him. I'm not suggesting this as a new law, but I think that we all need to struggle with how we apply God's authority over us, which is to be greater than the state's authority. We need to struggle with giving our whole selves to God -- doing what God would have us do -- in our everyday lives, which include death and taxes.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 2215 S 8th Ave., Yuma, AZ 85364