Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. (Mathew 22:15-22 NRSV)
The Pharisees and Herodians are cagey with their efforts to entrap Jesus in some way. They begin by flattering him with gracious compliments about his ability to discern and tell the truth. They are attempting to set Jesus up for their next question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” Jesus knows what they are trying to do, so he immediately calls them hypocrites. If they truly saw that he is a man of truth, they would have had no need to test him with their double-edged question; a question that could get Jesus into trouble with either answer.
Jesus holds up the coin and asks, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” It is apparent that the coin belongs to the emperor. The coin has the emperor’s name on one side and his title on the other. Thus Jesus acknowledges that there are things- such as taxes- that belong to the emperor.
On the other hand, when Jesus continues with “give… to God the things that are God’s”, the listeners would know that Jesus often preached and taught that the kingdom of God is present and everywhere. EVERYTHING belongs to God. Even the emperor! His answer shows the interrogators that the emperor, with all of his power, still belongs to God and is under God’s reign. The emperor and all he owns are nothing compared to our awesome God.
This lesson helps to give us some helpful perspectives for today. All over the world, there are times when governments and political systems can be frustrating, maddening, unjust, greedy, self-serving, war-mongering, and even oppressive. We are called to do what we can, to correct the wrongs, to work for justice, and to speak for those who are not served fairly or well. We can easily lose heart, especially when our efforts seem to produce very little change and very slow progress.
These words of Jesus help us to not lose heart. We can carry the hope and the peace in knowing that governments and political leaders are lesser than God. These kingdoms are not forever, and they are nothing compared to the kingdom of heaven. Everything we have- everything in this world- belongs to God. God is the ultimate Ruler of the universe and of our individual hearts. We do all that we can, we take responsibility for all that we should, and we entrust the rest to God.
Are you talking to ME?
Today Jesus is asking, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”
What political or governmental issues have you upset? Is there an action you can take to make change for the better? How might Jesus’ words give you a new perspective on your government and on our world? What would Jesus want you to know today?
Whose head is this, and whose title?