The Tax Trap

Matthew 22:15-22

Then the Pharisees went and counseled together how they might trap Him in what He said. And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any. “Tell us therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, “Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites? “Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax.” And they brought Him a denarius. And He said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” Then He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” And hearing this, they marveled, and leaving Him, they went away.

“Then;” used to show that after, and as a result of, what Jesus has said, the Pharisees call a meeting and create a conference so that they can figure out a way to trap Jesus. Yeah, good luck with that!

What a big bunch of babbling babies the Pharisees are! These conniving cowards conspiring against Christ, can’t even look him in the eye. Notice their satanic scheme and their unadulterated apprehension; “the Pharisees went and counseled together how they might trap Him in what He said. And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians.” Perhaps I am wrong, it is possible Passover preparations preoccupied the Pharisees so that they had to send their disciples, along with the Herodians. Problem; they had time to convene a council. We know by the context that they feared the people. I also doubt that they wanted to lose again, but they had to try, therefore they sent their disciples, along with the Herodians, in hopes that Jesus would offend the government and be arrested. We can ascertain this by the context.

“Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any. “Tell us therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?” First, we see the reason that the Herodians were sent along with the disciples of the Pharisees. Problem; negotiations make strange bedfellows. Herodians were loyal to Rome and the Pharisees dispised Rome. Nevertheless, the trap was set to try to get Jesus to say something either for, or against, the poll-tax. If he said it was lawful to pay the poll-tax, he would offend the Pharisees and if he said it wasn’t lawful, he would offend the Herodians. The Herodians, or, those of Herod, must have been part of the local government which answered to Rome. Clearly, they were hoping for Jesus to give them probable cause for arrest. Another Problem for them, being on opposing sides; they tipped their hand. Of course, Jesus doesn’t need them to tip their hand. Which leads us to the second thing that we notice about the disciples of the Pharisees.

Listen to the way they speak; though reading, you will hear it. “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any.” This is what we call, elevating to bring down. The Pharisees’ disciples are completely condescending. These supercilious supporters of the Pharisees have been well trained in pompous piety. They are the blind followers of the blind but are arrogant enough that they think they can butter Jesus up, to get him to make a mistake. Let’s see what happens to these miniscule minions after mingling with the Master.

“‘Tell us therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?’ But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, ‘Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites?'” We usually read something like, “Jesus, knowing their thoughts,” in cases like this. However, in this particular case, we read, “But Jesus perceived their malice.” I don’t think that this was extraordinary or supernatural. I think that the Master saw them coming a mile away. After all, the Herodians and the Pharisees weren’t exactly the best of friends. Jesus was God made flesh, and he was filled with the Spirit and I am sure that contributed to his discernment. Nevertheless, it was obvious what they were attempting to do. Look at who was with them, the buttering up, and the question asked. Even in print, translated from a foreign language from two thousand years ago, we can sense the trap that they are trying to set. We, like Jesus, can see right through their thinly veiled words of flattery. Most of us, if not all, have been there ourselves (oh, the stories I could tell). We also know the history of the Pharisees, who try to trap Jesus at every turn. It’s almost as if the Pharisees are getting desperate, isn’t it?

But Jesus (I love those words) perceived their malice, and said, “’Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites? Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax.’ And they brought Him a denarius. And He said to them, ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?'”

Ah, the Master, days from death but sharper than any sword. He not only uses a visual aid but also, as per his modus operandi, answers their question, with a question of his own. Now I am about to go to a place of which I doubt that you have ever been. It will be quick, perhaps poignant, and certainly not​ essential but it should make the mega-church pastor cringe– Jesus had to ask for a denarius. 

“’Whose likeness and inscription is this?’ They said to Him, ‘Caesar’s.’ Then He said to them, ‘Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.'” This is not a political statement or point of view, nor is it simply Jesus attempting to keep himself in the good graces of the Romans and the Jews at the same time. And although it contains significant spiritual sentiment, many pastors and preachers, theologians and teachers have misconstrued the Master’s meaning.

Simply seen, Jesus acquiesced to both the Herodians and the Pharisees. If Jesus had answered that it was not lawful to pay the poll-tax, he may have gained the support of the Pharisees, who hate Rome’s occupation but would have offended the Herodians. However, the antithesis is also true. If he had said that it was lawful to pay the poll-tax, he would have gained the support of the Herodians but offended the Pharisees. Problem; Jesus didn’t give a rip who he offended. Don’t miss that. It’s very odd to me how many pastors and preachers, theologians and teachers, claim that the Herodians and the disciples of the Pharisees had Jesus in a catch-22. Yes, that’s what it looks like but they fail to consider the context. Remember the following: “Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites?” Jesus doesn’t care about those who are offended by him. But oh how he cares for those who make much of him.

Often times it’s easy to forget with whom they, and we, are reckoning. Romans nine comes to mind. “You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?’ On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use, and another for common use? What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles. As He says also in Hosea, ‘I WILL CALL THOSE WHO WERE NOT MY PEOPLE, “MY PEOPLE,” AND HER WHO WAS NOT BELOVED, “BELOVED. AND IT SHALL BE THAT IN THE PLACE WHERE IT WAS SAID TO THEM, “YOU ARE NOT MY PEOPLE,” THERE THEY SHALL BE CALLED SONS OF THE LIVING GOD.’”

And skipping ahead a bit to the end of chapter 11, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, OR WHO BECAME HIS COUNSELOR? Or WHO HAS FIRST GIVEN TO HIM THAT IT MIGHT BE PAID BACK TO HIM AGAIN? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.”

The Herodians and the Pharisees made an unlikely alliance to try to trap this Jesus. The same Jesus that created all things, sustains all things and came “to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus desires to die. Not so that he can be reunited with the Father in heaven but because it’s the only way to ransom his people from the outer darkness. “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin.” Although his ministry is far from finished in these, his last few days, Jesus is not caught in a catch-22. He certainly doesn’t find a middle ground to stay out of trouble.

“‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.’ And hearing this, they marveled, and leaving Him, they went away.” The disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians had heard enough–they marveled–they were astonished. It seems as though they understood what Jesus has said–do we?

I have heard a litany of lines, concerning this context. From, “we must pay our taxes no matter what” to, “if a government does anything against God, we should not support them in any way, including paying taxes.” Problem; niether are what Jesus said, nor is it anywhere on some middle ground. We are looking at this from a distorted vantage point with the wrong lens. I’m sorry to say that we are thinking like Western, mega-church pastors–their influence is far-reaching. That’s because they didn’t wake up one day and decide, “I’m going to be a snake-oil salesmen,” it was a slow fade. From modern evangelism to secular seminaries, the Western, Christian culture has been eroding for decades by the waves of the American Dream. We are to the point where we question taxation when reading this passage but that is not where Jesus went with his witty and wise proclamation.

I always have to remind myself to keep it simple stupid. We have read previously in Matthew, that Jesus and Peter paid the two drachma tax. Paul plainly states that we are to pay taxes in Romans 13:6. In fact, according to the context of Romans 13, the American Revolution appears to be immoral. But what does the context of Matthew tell us? Remember two things; First, Jesus didn’t have a denarius and second, he was taking the Kingdom away from the Pharisees because of their abuse and misuse of the Scripture. Simply stated, this passage is not suitable for political discourse, at least not in defense of what taxes to pay. (Pay your taxes.)

We certainly see and agree with Jesus that we need to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” However we must also consider the greater context. After Jesus rode in on a donkey, overturned the tables in the temple, refused to reveal from where he received authority and taught in parables concerning the scribes and priests being replaced, the Pharisees sent two opposing groups to set a trap for Jesus, and it was a great trap. Notice; they took a page out of the book of Jesus and tried to trap him in the same way that he trapped the scribes. Jesus asked them a question that only had the possibility of two answers. Either John’s baptism came from heaven or from man. They knew they were trapped and answered, “we don’t know.” After convening a council, the Pharisees devise a devious plan to trap Jesus in the same way. But it became a big backfire. According to their reasoning, Jesus would either have to answer yes or no, with a third option of, I don’t know. However Jesus, as always, turned their trap towards them and caught them in their wickedness.

It seems like I am running around in circles, beating aound the proverbial bush and beating the proverbial dead horse but it is to ensure that we have a firm grasp of the context. Jesus came to die but also to teach, demostrate and remove the old way. “Is it lawful to pay the poll-tax?” If they only knew what the King of kings was about to do to them by the hands of the Romans. Can you imagine what they would have thought if they knew that the greatest book of doctrine in our Cannon would be named, “Romans?”

The question is not is it lawful to pay the poll-tax but why is there a poll-tax? “Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, just as I promised to Moses.” Problem; they didn’t follow God, therefore the Lord sent Assyria, Babylon and now, Rome.

The Pharisees were looking for a political upheaval, not a Spiritual one. They were expecting the Messiah to come and restore the Kingdom to Israel. But Jesus is the true Israel, fulfilling everything they couldn’t–the Kingdom belongs to him. Babylon, Assyria and Rome with their wicked ways were sent in judgement.

Application: who do we serve; God or the American Dream? Are we seeking Spiritual upheaval or chasing the false promises of mega-church pastors? Are we following in the footsteps of Jesus or the Pharisees and Herodians. Are immoral taxes that are used to slaughter the unborn the fault of the world or an unfaithful church chasing the almighty dollar rather than after righteousness?

 

 

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