Caesar and God: context

Coinage1Matthew 22:15–22  15 Then the Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap him in speech. 16 They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. 17 Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” 18 Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin. 20 He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” 21 They replied, “Caesar’s.” At that he said to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” 22 When they heard this they were amazed, and leaving him they went away.

Context. Over the last three weeks we have considered three tightly connected Matthean parables: the two sons 21:28-32; the tenants in the vineyard 21:33-46; and the wedding banquet 22:1-14. They are 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.

Matthew makes the last parable the climax of the progression of this three-parable set: The first of the triad, the parable of the two sons (21:28–32), focuses on the (more than a) prophet John; the second, the parable of the lord’s vineyard given to others (21:33–46), pictures the whole prophetic line climaxing in Jesus, the Son who is killed. This third parable is understood from Matthew’s own post-Easter perspective, facing the parousia and final judgment. This final parable thus follows the perspective in picturing the history of salvation from the original calling of Israel to the last judgment, and places Jesus and the church in the succession of Israel’s prophets, persecuted and rejected by Israel.

That is the perspective from the overarching view of salvation history. On the less cosmic view of an individual there are other themes that have emerged: the everyday task of doing God’s will. The leaders of Jerusalem are found wanting and, despite their invitation, do not come to the king’s wedding banquet. The invitation is then extended to those traveling on the streets (some would say, “on the way”) – but as noted in the parable and in 22:14, “Many are invited, but few are chosen.” Who are the chosen? The true “chosen people” is not automatically identified with those who belong to the Israelite community, not even those who are its official leaders: these are the invited, but not necessarily the chosen. The “many” and the “few” speak of a weeding process, whereby many of those invited will not make it to the feast. The chosen are the new tenants who will produce the fruit, who, as we have seen in the second parable, may be Jewish or Gentile. Their “chosenness” does not depend on their racial origin but on their response to God’s summons and their readiness to give God his due. The principle applies both to the old Israel (vv. 3–7) and to those who have taken their place (vv. 8–13).

The three parable are an overarching message that those who find themselves unexpectedly included in the invitation may not presume on grace and their willingness to “show up,” but are warned of the dire consequences of accepting the invitation and doing nothing except showing up. As the first parable warned: one must produce fruit.

With the three parables concluded, Matthew now offer three controversy stories:

  • Taxes to the Emperor (22:15-22)
  • The Resurrection (22:23-33)
  • The Great Commandment (22:34-40)

Our Sunday gospel talks about doing what God wants and our submission to proper authority in real life. And certainly “taxes” are real and a part of life. Real enough that they are part of our literary tradition. As Brian Stoffregen notes: “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 good thing about the love of Christ is that is truly the only certain thing – and now and always is a convenient time.

The scene throughout the parable and these controversies remains in the temple courtyard. We are reminded of the listening crowd by a single notice in v. 33 that they were astonished at Jesus’ teaching. Their favorable reaction will be presupposed in the way Jesus takes them to be on his side against the scribes and Pharisees in 23:1–12.

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