Benjamin Franklin’s statement to a friend about six years after the end of the American civil war in 1789 still seems relevant today. He said: ‘In this world, nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.’ It was clearly true in Jesus’ time as his persecutors continued to come after him, and on this occasion, (Matt.22:15-33), they tried to trip him up about taxes and then about the resurrection.
Matthew describes Jesus’ awareness of their malice as they plotted with the Herodians, to encourage him to implicate himself in treason, as he calls them ‘hypocrites’. We know from bitter experience, malice harms, while lack of empathy and understanding combined with malice kills people and filled with malice, the authorities killed Jesus.
The particular tax under discussion is the poll tax, in addition to all the other taxes the people paid which included: temple taxes, customs taxes and land taxes, and this was a tax paid as a tribute to Rome to support the Roman occupation of Israel. The Israelites were expected to pay their oppressors a denarius a year – the equivalent of a day’s wages – to support their own oppression. It is also important to note this was a tax the Israelite authorities collected for Rome – making it a double hypocrisy – and it’s a practice still used by nations to cover their costs of colonialism and oppression.
Jesus points this out. He calls to mind the prohibition on constructing idols and graven images (Exodus 20:4). No faithful Jew would have owned or created any likeness of Moses or Abraham. Yet they clearly possessed many images of a pagan ruler. It’s worth noting Jesus himself did not have a denarius with which to point this out. He is not part of the system being questioned by his enemies. Jesus’ opponents didn’t think it through enough to realise that by producing a coin they betrayed their own complicity in the Roman system. Jesus makes explicit their confession by asking whose image is on the coin. ‘The Emperor’s’, is the answer, showing everyone who was present in the debate they understood the face and the blasphemous nature of the confession of divinity they were carrying.
In showing up what should be a problem for observant Jews, Jesus raised the issue of ownership. The coin belonged to the Emperor; his likeness declares his kingdom. This kingdom is marked by wealth, military strength and brutality and all the political power held by the emperor.
Jesus reminded his listeners to give to God the things that are God’s (Matt. 22:21). And of course, the obvious follow-up question: where do they now stand in relation to the Emperor and all that ‘belongs’ to the Emperor in their own hearts and minds? Jesus was not advocating a dual system with a separation of powers where God takes what has been left out by the Emperor. What Jesus highlights is how we’re keeping God to one side while the Emperor and all our idolizing of wealth, now occupies and colonises the space overshadowing, ignoring and pushing to one side, God’s power and creation of all things.
Jesus rebukes the Pharisees as ‘hypocrites’, firstly for their uncritical loyalty to the Emperor, but also for their belief they can treat God in a similar fashion, like a great tax collector who can be appeased with a minimal tax.
We cannot serve two masters (6:24). There is no room to compartmentalise our loyalties. Jesus is calling on us to give our whole lives to God, to recognise to whom we already belong.
Matthew combines this text with a subsequent challenge by the Sadducees concerning their disbelief on the resurrection and Jesus’ response. The Sadducees did not believe in life after death. Their example offered to Jesus is unhelpful, focusing as it does on multiple marriages for a poor woman who loses seven husbands who are all brothers, in accordance with Levitical law, and without children from any of the marriages.
Last week I led a retreat called ‘Being Threatened with Resurrection’ and my proposition was as Christians, it is the resurrection to which we are being called through death, and it echoes Jesus’ central belief, that resurrection is essential in all aspects of his life, his work and teachings. (Matt. 17:22-23)
The Sadducees’ initial problem is they could only see life after death as a continuation of this world: which is not the case. Consequently, they rule out what they see as impossible, and so fail to allow God’s creative power to inform them of what is possible in their preconceptions. Jesus reminds the Sadducees and us, resurrection is unlike any reality they or we can imagine, which is why they rule it out at the beginning. It does not correspond to anything we can see or believe.
Instead, Levitical marriage was used to ensure the family name and the generations to come were being preserved; bonded marriage was how they imagined immortality. Their question about which brother would own the woman and through her, the children in a resurrected life was a complicated and disrespectful question and one the Sadducees hoped would trip up Jesus. They were inviting him to oppose Moses and so put himself in peril.
Jesus steps across the trap, focusing on their beliefs. He says, ‘You are wrong, you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God’, to fulfil the law (Matt.22.29).
For Jesus, who is the very fulfilment of the law, his words are explosive for those who believe they are the staunchest defendants of their religious tradition. Jesus goes on to tell them their very categories of what is important in God’s kingdom are irrelevant. Marriage as it was conceived as a patriarchal institution of ownership of one person by another will no longer be a reality. Resurrection will not simply improve on what we have now, but it will be completely, utterly different.
The Sadducees cannot imagine a living God, a God not of the dead but of the living. I wonder if there are times when we are the same. We seek a dead God, a God who will not interfere with our grand conquest of life, a God who’s only job is to secure an honoured place for us in heaven, and then get out of the way. Jesus challenges our cramped imaginations. And like the Sadducees we are in danger of forgetting to acknowledge God’s power. Like the earlier example of the denarius with the image of the Emperor, Jesus reminds us, the power of God is not limited on earth nor in heaven, nor by death. The resurrection of the dead is God’s affirmation of life, the demonstration of God’s power over death. The Lord be with you.
Jarvis, C. A., Johnson, E.E. [Eds]. 2013. Feasting on the Gospels Matthew, Vol.2 Chapters 14-28. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky.