NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 21b: Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.”
This same story is told in a non-canonical Gospel, but reads a little differently: “They showed Jesus a gold coin and said to him, ‘The Roman emperor’s people demand taxes from us.’ He said to them, ‘Give the emperor what belongs to the emperor, give God what belongs to God, and give me what is mine.’”1 So, now His critics were on the defensive. Perhaps they thought Jesus would take the same position as another Galilean, whose name was Judas. Josephus tells us: “Judas, prevailed with his countrymen to revolt, and said they were cowards if they would tolerate paying taxes to the Romans and would, next to God, submit to mortal men as their lords.”2 Josephus goes on to say: “This man was a teacher of a peculiar sect of his own, and was not at all like the rest of those their leaders.”3
This may not have been Judas Iscariot, but it sure did sound like him. However, Jesus makes it clear to them, you must recognize Caesar as the power and authority behind the taxes and fees that were required of all those living under the flag of the Roman empire, so there was no penalty in a Jew paying his due. However, should that same Caesar demand what is given to God, such as obedience, loyalty, service, praise, and worship, then do not give it to him, but give it only to God.
Since Jesus knew what they were up to, He was able to respond with measured and precise words. One early church scholar gives us his take on this dialogue: “What then! You permit us to serve a man, and not God? And how is this not a violation of the law? It will amount to nothing. Indeed, the act of giving tax to Caesar does not prevent the service of God, although you would like to think so. This is why it is necessary for you to give to God equally what is God’s, in such a manner that if what is Caesar’s is kept for the service of God, it is necessary that God be preferred to him. If you remain a contributor to Caesar, you should attribute this to your sins, not to God. In the same way, Paul similarly applies himself to the same distinction. In sending a letter to the Romans he wrote, ‘Pay to the world, therefore, what is due to the world; to those you owe taxes, taxes; to those you owe tribute, tribute.’4”5
Jesus did not take a cultist position on this, for He knew that the Jewish Rabbis had taught: “For the law established by the king is binding law. Indeed, anyone who does not pay this tax transgresses, for he is taking what is due the king. This applies whether the king is Jewish or Gentile.”6
Verse 22: When they heard what Jesus said, they were impressed. So they left Him and went away.
Caught in their own trap, the Herodians and Pharisees are exposed for who they really were. Our Lord’s show-and-tell illustration answered their question without rebuttal. I like the way one commentator describes what happened. This English text is dated from the 1800’s so it may seem a little Shakespearean, but I think you’ll get the point.
“This conclusion is drawn from their own maxims and premises. They held that “wherever the money of any king is current, there the inhabitants acknowledge that king for their lord.” Now, by admitting that this was Cæsar’s coin, and by consenting to receive it as the current coin of their country, they, in fact, acknowledged their subjection to his government, and of course their obligation to pay the tribute demanded of them. This answer was full of consummate wisdom, and it completely defeated the harmful designs of His enemies. He avoided rendering Himself detestable to the Jewish people by opposing their notions of liberty or appearing to pay court to the emperor, without exposing Himself to the charge of sedition and disloyalty to the Roman government.7
Whatever the Herodians and Pharisees had hoped to gain, they left carrying less than they arrived with. For sure, their own reputations had suffered devaluation, but they went away with an increased admiration and respect for Jesus of Nazareth. Even though the Pharisees cut their losses, the word of their failure got around town in a hurry. So the Sadducees decided to try their luck in causing Jesus to misspeak by using a “religious question” as bait. Paradoxically enough, it was on a subject they themselves did not believe in – the resurrection.
Although Caesars no longer rule the world, the principle remains the same today. As citizens, we are to be good stewards and support honest government and leaders by paying our fair share of the needed taxes to provide necessary services and protection. But at the same time, we are citizens of heaven’s kingdom and we should have the same attitude in providing for the mission that Jesus started, and continue doing the work all of us were called to do in this world.
Verse 23: That same day some Sadducees came to Jesus. (Sadducees believe there will be no resurrection from death.) The Sadducees asked Jesus a question.
Most scholars believe that this parenthetical statement was either added by Matthew’s scribe to his Greek translations, or a copier who felt the reader needed to know. The Syriac version reads, “and were saying to Him there is no resurrection of the dead,” while the Ethiopic version renders it: “saying, there is no resurrection of the dead.” But whatever the source, it is a fact that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection, angels, or spirits.
According to Rabbi Nathan it all started when two disciples of Antigonus of Soko, one named, Zadok, and the other, Boethius, interpreted his words: “Be not like slaves that serve their master for the sake of compensation; be rather like slaves who serve their master with no thought of compensation, and let the fear of Heaven be upon you,” to mean there was no life beyond the grave, so enjoy life while you have it. They said: “Why did our ancestors see fit to say such a thing? Doesn’t it make sense that if a laborer works all day should he not take his reward in the evening?” They go on to say: “If therefore, our ancestors had really believed that there is another world and that there will be a resurrection of the dead, they would never say such a thing.”8
So the one group that followed Zadok became known as Sadducees,9 and the other group who followed Boethius became known as Boethusians, but both maintained their denial of the resurrection and were perpetual opponents of the Pharisees. According to Jewish scholars, “There certainly were some differences between the Sadducees and the Boethusians, but the latter appear to have been a subgroup or an offshoot of the Sadducean group.”10 But by the time Jesus came, the Pharisees and Sadducees were functioning as two opposing groups.
In an early church commentary on Matthew we find the following observation on what took place here: “On the day when the Pharisees returned, the Sadducees acquiesced. The Sadducees then returned, and in turn, the Pharisees withdrew. So it was one opponent and then another through many days of struggle. They accosted Him frequently so that one or the other might be able to best Him, or if they were not able to put Him down squarely, they might instead undermine others’ judgment of Him. So they frequented His company. Among numerous enemies, the strongest warrior will be found. While they were not able to put Him down simply by words, they all surrounded Him. They could not overcome Him by strength; they sought to turn everyone against Him, with the crowd close behind.”11
Verse 24: They said, “Rabbi, Moses told us that if a married man dies and has no children, his brother must marry his widow. Then they will produce children for the dead brother.”
Apparently, these Sadducees had heard how Jesus always used the written law to explain His theological position. So they begin by quoting Moses’ words on how a younger brother can keep the family tree alive for an older brother who dies without having any children.12 In fact, any son born to this remarried widow would then be given the name of her deceased husband in order to keep his name alive.13
Rabbi Rashi gives us further information concerning certain exemptions that were allowed: “If a man dies, and his brother is born after his death, his widow may not marry the brother of her deceased husband. This law applies only to brothers who share in the inheritance“together” [namely, paternal brothers]. This excludes maternal brothers.”14
And, another Jewish commentator adds this: “The Torah’s words: ‘When one of them dies childless’ [should not be interpreted narrowly]. When the deceased has a son, a daughter, a descendant of a son, or a descendant of a daughter, as long as he has left progeny – whether from the woman to whom he is presently married or from another woman, his wife is free from the obligation of chalitzah15 or yibbum.16 Even if he has a descendant who is illegitimate or an idolater, that descendant frees the deceased’s wife from the obligation of chalitzah or yibbum.”17
However, some scholars add: “If a man fathered a child or children, and they all died in the father’s lifetime, the man’s wife is obligated to perform the rite of yibbum.”18 Since these questioners did not believe in the resurrection, Jesus knew they were using this as bait in getting Him to misspeak or go against the teaching of the Law. So He waited to see what else they had to say.
1 Gospel of Thomas, v. 100
2 The Works of Flavius Josephus, War of the Jews, Bk. 2, Ch. 8:1
4 Romans 13:7
5 Severus: Ibid.
6 Ibid., Halacha 11
7 Treasury of Scriptural Knowledge, loc. cit.
8 The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, Ch. 5, p. 39
9 Cf. Matthew 3:7-8: Sadducees
10 From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism by Lawrence H. Schiffman, 1991, p. 111
11 Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 42
12 Deuteronomy 25:5
13 Ibid., 25:6
14 Rashi’s Commentary on the Complete Jewish Bible, Deuteronomy 25:5
15 Deuteronomy 25:7-10 – The term “Chalitzah” refers to the option a man has if he does not want to marry his brother’s widow.
16 The term “Yibbum” is a reference to this obligated levirate marriage to marry a brother’s widow.
17 Moses Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, op. cit. Sefer Nashim, Tractate Yibbum vChalitzah, Ch. 1, Halacha 3
18 Ibid. Footnote 9