The story of Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees and Herodians in Matthew 22 is one of the better known and often quoted stories in the New Testament. Everyone knows that Jesus amazed the crowd with his answer to their question of whether or not to pay tribute to Caesar. When you understand more about the culture and put some background into this story, Jesus’ answer is even more amazing and it makes a huge difference in how the story is understood.
First, read the story in Matthew 22:15-22. First of all, the fact that the Pharisees and the Herodians would cooperate on anything is worthy of note. The Pharisees were very religious and very dissatisfied with Herod and the Romans. The Herodians were very secular and enjoyed the prosperity and lifestyle that the ruling administration afforded them. The Pharisees often called the Herodians the “Lost Sheep of Israel”. However, in this case, the two parties were desperate enough that they agreed to work together to see if they could trap Jesus with a question that he couldn’t answer without alienating one or the other of the groups. The story hinges on two points: the word tribute and knowledge of the denarius coin that was used in the confrontation between the Pharisees, Herodians and Jesus. If you understand these two pieces of the puzzle, then you will get a great impact (Hebrew, “Shanon”) out of the story.
Verse 17 in many translations says, “should we pay tribute to Caesar or not?” However, in some translations it says, “taxes”. Tribute is the correct word to translate here because during this time in history the tax and the tribute were two different forms of payment required by the Romans. The tribute was a special form of tax that the emperor required every subject to pay to him to honor him as God. It was not a large tax, maybe $100.00 or so a year in today’s money. Every nation that the Roman Empire controlled had to pay this tribute like you would tithe or pay to your own God. The Jews, during part of this period in history were given an exemption from paying this tribute because they were so passionate about their God being the one and only God. For a while Rome let them slide just because it caused so much controversy. Every nation paid this tribute to all the Caesars as a way of paying homage to their rank as one of the Gods in the Roman Pantheon. Failure to pay this tribute would result in death or imprisonment.
Every Caesar minted his own coin or coins that would be used to pay this tribute to him. One Caesar minted eleven different coins just for this purpose. The important point here is that this coins only purpose was to pay the tribute to the Caesar. This coin was called the Denarius. The coin that Jesus asked to see and would have been looking at would have been the coin of Tiberius, the Roman Emperor that was currently in power. Many of these coins have survived and you can look them up on the internet to see what they say on both faces. The Tiberius denarius coin’s inscription is as follows: “Tiberius, Worshiped Son of the Worshiped God”. Tiberius, was the son of Caesar Augustus, the first Caesar to declare himself a god in a public way. Tiberius, through this inscription on his denarius tribute coin, was declaring himself to be God!
With this in mind, in verse 20, when Jesus asked, “Whose portrait and whose inscription?” the audience already knew that the coin claimed Caesar was God. When Jesus said, “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar” (go ahead and pay him his tribute because he is in authority over you), “but give to God what belongs to God”, he was separating the two, God and Caesar! Caesar and God are two different things – Caesar is not God! This answer sent a shock wave through the listeners! Jesus satisfied the people that didn’t want to acknowledge him as God, but he also satisfied those who thought that the tribute should be paid. The Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots and Herodians couldn’t criticize him for his response. It was the perfect answer and left them all with their mouths open. “When they heard this they were amazed and they left him and went away”!
This story is such a perfect example of how knowing the culture and customs of the day make the Bible so much more interesting. Without knowing all this background information, you still know that Jesus did a wonderful job in confounding the great thinkers of his day but knowing these cultural facts makes the story jump off the page. While it doesn’t really change the meaning of the story, it sure makes his point so much richer! Don’t we serve and awesome and inspiring God!!
P.S. An interesting side note to this story is found in David Stern’s, “Jewish New Testament Commentary” on this story in Matthew 22. The Bible translators left out the first word of Jesus reply to the Herodians and Pharisees. The first word Jesus spoke was the Yiddish word “Nu” (Greek-OUN). Jesus says, “Nu, give the emperor what belongs to the emperor”. “Nu” is an all purpose Yiddish word that is similar to our word, “Duh!” Jesus is saying, “Duh! Can’t you figure this one out for yourself?” This one little word really conveys the tone of Jesus reply to his opponents and shows you how soundly he handled this confrontation and made them look bad. This was really an eye opener!