NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
By now, the Pharisees and other opponents of Jesus are faced with the reality that this Jesus of Nazareth was the real thing. For a man with no paper trail showing his religious training to be able to answer questions and field inquiries with the wisdom and insight that Jesus did, clearly indicated that He had access to a divine mind. But spiritually speaking, these opponents of the Messiah were brain dead. Our Lord’s royal ancestor had the same thing happen to him. King David once said, “If they come to see me, they don’t say what they are really thinking. They come to gather a little gossip and then go to spread their rumors.”1 And no doubt Jesus felt the same way the son of Jesse did: “My enemies are always twisting my words. They are always making plans against me.”2 Our Lord also had empathy with the prophet Jeremiah who revealed that his enemies conferred and said, “Come, let us make plans against Jeremiah. We will always have a priest to tell us what the law says. We will still have wise men to advise us and prophets to tell us a message from God. So who needs Jeremiah? Let’s tell lies to ruin him and stop listening to what he says.”3
Since the Pharisees were not able to penetrate our Lord’s shield of wisdom, they decided to enlist the help of some other opponents. Their choice of teammates is a mystery. They asked people from a group they hated and despised to help them out. These solicited accomplices were called, “Herodians.” What an odd partnership. It reminds me of a character named Trinculo in one of William Shakespeare’s plays discussing how to find shelter from a coming storm, and it appears that he would be forced to get under the cloak of someone he detested named Caliban. So he says, “…misery acquaints a man with strange bed-fellows.”4 It is usually quite rare to see people with strongly opposing views working together to do good, but it has become an everyday spectacle to see known enemies scheming together to do wrong.
A Greek theologian in the early church preached on this text and stated: “Jesus’ opponents expect that one of two outcomes must result for them from His response. They think they can show clearly that Jesus was acting wrongly against the law of Moses or against the power of the Romans. ‘Indeed, if He responds that it is necessary for us to pay the tribute,’ the Pharisees will necessarily slander Him alongside those who obey the Romans, saying, ‘He is guiding us outside the law of Moses away from the service of God. He is leading us to a foreign power and a foreign race.’ That is indeed why Luke says, ‘They could not catch Him at fault in His teaching before the people.’5 For it is public, that is to say, in the midst of the people, that they are questioning Him, in order to set the people against Him. And if He does not permit the tax to be paid, the Herodians will immediately lay their hands on Him as on one who does not submit to the Roman authorities.”6
So the plot is set, and it involves the religious, priestly, philosophical, and political powers that operated within the Jewish hierarchy. Then Severus goes on to say: “Observe what is the passion of hypocrisy, how it has hidden all the hostility and the homicidal thought of the Jews beneath flattery’s vile veil, and how those who hate involuntarily honor as they attempt to cause a death. Indeed, those who were saying, ‘We are the disciples of Moses, but we don’t know where that one is from,’7 call Him ‘Master.’ Those who were calling Him a ‘deceiver’ and ‘seducer’ say, ‘We know that you are truthful.’ Those who were doing their best to resist with jealousy and with ignorance, saying, ‘This man does not come from God, because He does not observe the Sabbath’ and ‘He has a demon,’8 witness that He teaches the way of God in all truth.”9
Verses 18-20: But Jesus knew that these men were trying to trick him. So He said, “You hypocrites! Why are you trying to catch me saying something wrong? Show me a coin used for paying the tax.” They showed Jesus a silver coin. Then He asked, “Whose image is on the coin? And whose name is written on the coin?”
To most readers, this question by Jesus would appear obvious. But from a Jewish perspective, it had an additional implication. First of all, we find that there was no national currency in Jesus’ day. Different kings and different areas struck their own coins, and some areas would not accept the money of others. But with the Romans being there as an occupying force, it was common then to use Roman coins for payment and barter. We read how these differences of opinion by governments over the value each others currency affected how Jews living outside of Israel would be able to come home and use their money to buy and sell.
In their Talmud, we read: “The statement of Samuel as explained by Rabbi Nahman referred to the case where the Governments of the different provinces were antagonistic to one another, how would it be possible to bring the coins to the province where they still have currency?” However, in Jerusalem, there was a coin that is described this way: “The names David and Solomon were inscribed on one side and the name of Jerusalem on the other.”10 With God’s warning not to create images that could become objects of worship, the Jews did not have images on their coins.
So when Jesus asked about the image on the coin, it certainly eliminated the Jewish shekel. This same source goes on to ask: “What was the coin of Abraham our father? an old man and an old woman, (Abraham and Sarah,) on one side, and a young man and a young woman, (Isaac and Rebekah,) on the other side.” However, Jewish scholars add: “Not that there was on it the form of an old man and an old woman on one side, and of a young man and a young woman on the other, for it is forbidden to make the form of a man; but so it was written on one side, an old man and an old woman, and on the other side, a young man and a young woman.”11
On the subject of taxation, an early church theologian who lived in Antioch, Syria during the reign of the last emperors of the Eastern Roman Empire (AD 457-565), had this to say about their question: “What then does the Wisdom and the Word of God do? Jesus allows all their feelings to appear for all to see, without them taking back the words they spoke for no reason. And like a skillful physician, He then lances their feelings with a deep incision, when He cut with the first word. ‘Why are you testing me, hypocrites?’ And after having shown by a rebuke that the skin of deceitful hypocrisy was unresponsive, but gently and with tranquility, He nipped their inescapable question like the web of a spider. Indeed, He said, ‘Show me a coin for the tax.’ And they presented a coin. And He said to them, ‘This image and this inscription concern whom?’ They said to Him, ‘Caesar.’ ‘If the coin is Caesar’s,’ Jesus says, ‘because that is what you have said—it is necessary to give it to Caesar himself.’”12 In other words, Jesus let them answer their own question.
Verse 21a: They answered, “It is Caesar’s image and Caesar’s name.”
Matthew does not indicate what coin this was. We do read an interesting story about what the Jews thought of Roman coins. It reads: “A certain Min13 once sent on his festival day a Caesarean denar to Rabbi Judah Nesi’a, while Resh Lakish happened to be visiting him. The Min asked: ‘What should I do? If I accept it, he will go and praise the idols for it; if I do not accept it, he will be displeased.’ ‘Take it,’ answered Resh Lakish,‘ and drop it into a well in the messenger’s presence.’ ‘But this will displease him all the more!’ ‘I mean you should do it by sleight of hand.’”14 One famous Rabbi put it this way: “When the coins issued by a king are the tender of the land. This indicates that the inhabitants of that land have accepted him and consider him to be their leader and themselves to be his subjects.”15 But now comes the rub, who do they accept as their Lord, God or Caesar?
The early church writer who remains anonymous offers this comparison of what man owes Caesar and what they owe God. He writes: “The image of God is not depicted on gold but is imaged in humanity. The coin of Caesar is gold; that of God, humanity. Caesar is seen in his currency; God, however, is known through human beings. And so give your wealth to Caesar but reserve for God the sole innocence of your conscience, where God is beheld. For the hand of Caesar has crafted an image by likenesses and lives each year by renewable decree. However, the divine hand of God has shown His image in ten points.
What ten points? From five carnal ones and five spiritual ones through which we see and understand what things are useful under God’s image. So let us always reflect the image of God in these ways:
I do not swell up with the arrogance of pride;
nor do I droop with the blush of anger;
nor do I succumb to the passion of greed;
nor do I surrender myself to the ravishes of gluttony;
nor do I infect myself with the deceit of hypocrisy;
nor do I contaminate myself with the filth of rioting;
nor do I grow flippant with the pretension of conceit;
nor do I grow enamored of the burden of heavy drinking;
nor do I alienate by the discord of mutual admiration;
nor do I infect others with the biting of detraction;
nor do I grow conceited with the vanity of gossip.
Rather, instead, I will reflect the image of God in that I feed on love;
grow certain in faith and hope;
strengthen myself on the virtue of patience;
grow tranquil by humility;
grow beautiful by chastity;
am sober by abstention;
am made happy by tranquility;
and am ready for death by practicing hospitality.
It is with such inscriptions that God imprints His coins with an impression made neither by hammer nor by chisel but has formed them with His primary divine intention. For Caesar required his image on every coin, but God has chosen mankind, whom He has created, to reflect His glory.”16 What a beautiful illustration! Here Jesus is telling His inquisitors to look at the image on the coin and give it back to its creator. But then look in the mirror, and give themselves back to the One who created them in His own image.
1 Psalm 41:6
2 Ibid. 56:5
3 Jeremiah 18:18, (cf. 20:10)
4 William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act II, Scene ii. 38
5 Luke 20:26
6 Severus: Cathedral Sermons, Homily 104
7 John 9:28-29
8 Matthew 12
9 Severus, Ibid.
10 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Baba Kama, folio 97b
11 John Gill, Exposition of the Bible Commentary, loc. cit. From the Midrash Kohelet, folio 95. 4
12 Severus: Ibid
13 Min was a term used to describe a Jewish heretic or sectarian
14 Babylonian Talmud, Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Avodah Zarah, folio 6b
15 Moses Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Sefer Nezikim, Tractate Gezelah va’Avedah, Ch. 5, Halacha 18
16 Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 42