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But, as the group of members who looked at the passage discovered, there is more to this than a trick! And probably more than you might think to the phrase “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Let’s dig in!

Two chairs with the word 'Render' above it

Matthew 22:15-22

October 22, 2023

Dr. Todd R. Wright

You’ve all heard of Harry Houdini. “One of his best-known escapes is his ‘Chinese water torture cell.’ Houdini had his ankles locked into a frame, from which he was dangled upside down over a tank of water. He was lowered headfirst into the water and locked in place.”[1] A screen would be placed around the tank and a few minutes later he would reappear, dripping water all over the stage, but free!

Matthew tells of an even greater escape as Jesus wriggles out of an impossible question!

But, as the group of members who looked at the passage discovered, there is more to this than a trick! And probably more than you might think to the phrase “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Let’s dig in!


First, let’s be clear about the timing: This confrontation takes place on Monday of Holy week. According to Matthew, Jesus has entered into Jerusalem to crowds who spread their cloaks on the ground and shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” He entered the Temple and drove out the money changers saying “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’, but you are making it a den of robbers!”

He and his disciples are still in the Temple when our scene takes place and tensions are high!


Matthew’s description of the scene drips with scorn. He says, “the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap [Jesus] in what he said.” He says they sent their disciples, along with some Herodians.

It is curious – because Pharisees and Herodians would not have normally worked together. “Whereas the former [were] critical of Rome, the latter align[ed] with the Roman Empire because they [were] a political party supporting the Herodian dynasty, a puppet of the Roman Empire.”[2]

You’ve probably heard that only their joint hatred for Jesus could have made them allies.

But it is curious for another reason: why did the Pharisees send disciples instead of going themselves? Richard Swanson thinks he knows. He writes, The Pharisees send their students to the Herodians and they cook up a test that could get Jesus in trouble. Apparently, they want their students to pass for Herodians, for collaborators with Roman power. Maybe they wore costumes. They would probably have to, since the Pharisees dressed like observant Jews and the Herodians wore what are called elsewhere “gorgeous clothes.”[3]

They ask their question, a word snare. If Jesus says pay the taxes, he would anger his followers who were being crushed by the taxes of their oppressors. If he says no, don’t pay, the Herodians would turn him in to Rome as a dangerous rebel.

Jesus sees through them right away and calls them hypocrites. We assume the modern use of the word – someone who puts on a false appearance of virtue. But the Greek word means an actor or stage player – someone who says their lines from underneath a large mask that indicated the character they were playing.[4]

So when Jesus calls them hypocrites, Swanson says, “The line is hilarious. Jesus is telling them that they need a better costume department. Or they need more practice talking with the accent of a Herodian. Or that their attempts at method-acting are a little weak.”

Suddenly, a scene that has been all about tension, barely suppressed anger, and hints of future violence, becomes comic! Jesus is laughing at them! Or with them? It makes me wonder.


If it is possible that we misread the mood of the scene at this one point, maybe we

misunderstood other parts of what is going on here.

Maybe Jesus’ line about rendering unto Caesar in not just a brilliant way to slip the trap,

maybe he is reaching out to his enemies;

(except maybe he doesn’t really see them as enemies);

maybe he understands the roles they are all playing; and

maybe he is trying to teach them something, even at this late hour.


Consider this: the Herodians have decided to accept Rome’s power so that they might share in it, but the Pharisees have been living under Roman occupation for a while, too. They have been resisting, but as any occupied people learn, they must pick their battles; they must negotiate; they must cut deals that allow them to survive. When occupation goes on, and on, it is easy to lose hope; to believe that nothing will ever change; and that this is the only kingdom that there will ever be.

I think, with that short phrase about rendering unto Caesar, Jesus is offering them an alternative, a reminder that while the coin bears Caesar’s image, they are formed in God’s image.

I think he is counting on the fact that the Pharisees love the scripture, so he reminds their disciples of the ones they already know by heart – about the Creator and the extent of God’s kingdom:

Like when God said, “Let us make humans in our image, according to our likeness …” or

the psalmist’s testimony, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it …”[5]

I think he is telling people who feel trapped that there is a larger reality where they are not under the thumb of the Emperor. Instead, they are under the protection of the Creator of the universe!

I think it is possible that Jesus looks at these disciples of the Pharisees and hopes they might re-evaluate who to follow.


Even today that phrase “render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” should make us think.

One scholar observes, “While people pay taxes to Rome out of obligation, they “pay” to God because of their calling and their commitment to promote an alternative kingdom.”[6]

Rendering unto Caesar means collecting receipts in shoeboxes and filling out 10-40 EZ forms; it means rushing to H & R Block or typing numbers into TurboTax; it means paying your fair share to fund schools and roads and fire departments. It can be a hassle, but, if we take the time, it forces us to think about what a healthy society should look like and our role in making it.

Which is not to say it is voluntary. We are as obligated at the Pharisees.

But rendering unto God is different. There are no forms to fill out; no charts to decipher; no midnight deadlines to meet or file for an extension. God does not tax us.

And yet, here in Matthew (as well as in Mark and Luke), Jesus says there is something we are expected to render to God – a recognition that we are made in God’s image and given a role to play as stewards of God’s creation.

What does that look like in your life?

Is it recycling plastic and paper and cans?

Is it feeding the hungry?

Is it praying for (and working for) peace so that violence doesn’t bury hope in the rubble?

Is it a lifestyle characterized by curiosity and welcome toward strangers?

Is that what you owe God? Think about that this week as you render. Amen

[1] From “Escape Artist Harry Houdini was an ingenious inventor …” by Jackson Landers in Smithsonian magazine, 1/9/17
[2] From “Coin Flip”, the SALT Project’s commentary on the text, 10/17/23
[3] Here and following, from “A Provocation”, his commentary on the text, 10/22/17
[4] See
[5] From Genesis 1:26 and Psalm 24:1
[6] From Raj Nadella’s reflections on the text for, 10/18/20

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