We continue to read from the Gospel of Matthew (22:15-21) as we accompany Jesus during his final days in Jerusalem. He has made his triumphant entry into the city with a crowd of pilgrims, then he pulled the stunt in the temple, overthrowing the tables of the money changers. There was a question about his authority to act like this – to which he answered in three parables which we have listened to over the last 3 Sundays. Now he begins a series of three confrontation stories. Matthew tells us that the Pharisees set out to lay a trap for Jesus. They decide to send some of their disciples, along with a group of Herodians. The Pharisees were your bread and butter Jews. Anyone who didn’t have any particularly strong political leanings, who wanted to be faithful to God and to the Torah would be attracted to the Pharisees. The were not part of the political elite (like the Herodians) or the temple elite (like the Sadducees) or politically radical (like the Zealots) or just a bit odd and counter-cultural (like the Essenes) – they were very middle-of-the-road and devoted to God. The way of Jesus was a problem for them, because he challenged all of their ideas about what God was like. So they decide to put a question to him about taxes.
There were two systems of taxes at the time: Jewish and Roman. The Jewish faith required people to pay a tithe on their income and offer it to God, along with an additional temple tax. The Romans had three different kinds of tax:
- Ground tax levied at 10% of grain and 20% of wine and oil
- Income tax levied at 1% of all income
- Poll tax, a new tax, levied on every male from 14-65 and every female from 12-65 at the rate of 1 denarius per person.
It was the Poll tax that was in question. It was highly regressive and deeply hated by the impoverished majority. It had led Judas to lead a revolt against Rome, which had been crushed with all of the participants crucified on the hills around Galilee.
So the question that is put to Jesus is highly provocative: “Are we right in paying taxes to the Emperor, or not?”
If Jesus answers yes – he will make the Herodians happy, but upset his supporters who do not want this terrible tax burden. If Jesus answers no – he will keep his supporters happy and provide fuel for the Zealots, but give the Herodians and Romans fuel for a charge of sedition and a likely death penalty. Instead Jesus demonstrates a beautiful solution that is able to expose the hypocrisy of the one who within the temple precinct has a blasphemous coin that bears not only the name and image of Caesar but also the title of “August Caesar, son of the divine and high priest.”
Sunday 29, Year A. Isaiah 45:1.4-6; Matthew 22:15-21