October 22, 2023

Competing Allegiances (Matthew 22:15-22)

A Sermon Preached by Mr Jazz Wilson

Matthew 22:15-22

I want to say three things this morning:

  • Firstly, I will start by giving some context for today’s Gospel reading.
  • Secondly, I will talk about what Jesus’s words in our reading mean for our allegiance to political powers.
  • Lastly, I will offer a few reflections on the state of the conflict between Israel and Palestine.


For the context of our Gospel reading, it might help to be aware, or remind ourselves, of a few basic facts:

  • The Jews in Jesus’s time (that is, the early 1st Century) lived under Roman rule.
  • Rome was an empire, which means it ruled over territories outside its original borders.
  • Just like the British Empire, the Roman Empire found managing so many different territories difficult. They had to keep law and order, and this sometimes led to violence, especially in places where people felt persecuted, ignored, or who did not have the rights of citizenship.
  • Rome’s emperor had an imperial title, which was ‘Caesar’. In Jesus’s time, the Caesar was like a deity to be worshipped. Many of those living under Roman rule would have felt morally compromised if they were to worship Roman gods over their own, including the Jews.


With this context in mind, let’s turn to the Gospel reading itself.


When Jesus is asked whether it is right to pay taxes to Caesar or not, it is a trap.

The people challenging him are a mixed group of Pharisees and Herodians. But make no mistake: the Pharisees and Herodians were not friends. They had different values and opposing political allegiances.

The Pharisees endeavoured to hold the highest standards of the Jewish laws. They were highly patriotic and disdained the Roman rulers who had authority over them. The Herodians, by contrast, were more liberal in their religious observance and wanted the Roman authorities on side to sustain their prosperity. The Herodians criticised the Pharisees for their sectarianism because they knew that Rome’s authorities would clamp down on all Jews because of it. Whereas the Pharisees criticised the Herodians for being too cosy with Rome, who were – after all – the colonialists who had conquered their land.

But what united both groups was their scepticism of this religious teacher who had arrived on the scene. To both the Pharisees and Herodians, Jesus represented a challenge to their ideas of what sort of political allegiance they should have. Although both groups were Jewish, and although both believed in God, they disagreed on what that entailed politically. But together, they had devised a clever question to catch Jesus out.

“Teacher,”, they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth…Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”

Jesus then asks them to bring him the coin used for paying tax. Although the word ‘denarius’ is used in the text, it is likely the real coin was something called a tetradrachm. This is because no denarii have ever been found in archaeological digs around Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. By contrast, ample evidence exists that Tyrion coins minted at Antioch (in Syria) were in circulation, of which the tetradrachm is one. The tetradrachm has the head of Caesar Tiberius on the obverse and the head of Caesar Augustus on the reverse. On it is the Greek inscription Theos Sebastos Kaisar – which means ‘God Augustus Caesar’.

So it seems that this coin represented another god: not the God of the Jewish people, but the god of the empire that had stolen their land. Think about what kind of response Jesus could give to the question: ‘is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?’

If Jesus says ‘yes’, then the Pharisees and every other Jewish patriot would disown Jesus, because they resented Roman rule. If Jesus says ‘no’, then the Herodians could turn Jesus in for inciting a revolt against the Roman authorities. Instead, Jesus replies ‘Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s’.

But what does that mean? What does it mean to give to Caesar what is Caesar, and to God what is God’s?

At first glance, it looks like Jesus is saying ‘when it comes to religion you owe your allegiance to God, but when it comes to politics you owe your allegiance to whoever is in power’. There’s an obvious problem with that interpretation. What if God compels you to do one thing but your political authorities insist you do another? What happens when, for example, your religious conviction tells you to lay down your arms and your political authorities demand that you take them up? There are countless instances where the values of God’s kingdom clash with the values of the political powers of the day.

On reflection, it is not a political power or idea to which we owe our ultimate allegiance, but to God. This is because, from the view of Christianity (and indeed all Abrahamic faiths) all things belong to God. ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’ (Psalm 24:1). God made every Caesar, every Roman, every human, every living being and every inorganic thing, function, property, and law. Caesar’s authority would not exist without God, because Caesar himself would not exist without God. By saying ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s’, Jesus is acknowledging the legitimacy of Caesar’s political authority, but he also knows Caesar’s authority has limits, because only God has unlimited power. In other words, ‘go ahead and pay taxes to Caesar, but the power of that money is limited; money can’t buy you everything and it may be worthless, degraded, or stolen when you least expect – as for God, you are his and his power is limitless, give him your allegiance because only he can bring ultimate safety and redemption.’

This is why it says, in our reading from Isaiah, that ‘I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me’. This implies that some authorities will not know him. The authority of all kings, queens, presidents and prime ministers come from God, whether they know him or not. And by ‘to know’, we do not mean know objectively by one’s reason, as though God were an academic subject or object of scientific study – we mean ‘know’ with the heart, know intimately as you know a person, to know their character, their heart.

Our allegiance to God inspires what kind of political allegiances we should hold, for how long we should hold them, and when we ought to challenge our own position. And those positions can change over time as we come to understand the heart of God more clearly and intimately. It is perhaps for this reason that Jesus did not support nor start a political party: no politician or policy could claim to represent him because, after all, we are imperfect, flawed human beings who don’t always get it right.


I started by giving some context for our Gospel reading before moving on to give a sort of exegesis of the text itself. This leads me, finally, to address a very sensitive topic – about what these considerations might mean for the current conflict between Israel and Hamas, and the plight of those living in Gaza and the wider region.

Let’s imagine that an Israeli or Palestinian wanted to follow Jesus’s words to ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s’. What might that look like in this situation?

Earlier I described the Pharisees as highly patriotic, despising those who had taken over their land. And I described the Herodians as liberals who were open to compromising with the Romans who governed over them. To that extent, one could make the case that the Pharisees can be compared to the Zionists or Hamas militants of today – to the extent that their political views are partly shaped by religious fundamentalism. And one could compare the Herodians to the liberal centrists on both sides – to the extent that they are prepared to work towards a middle ground.

But there is no necessary entailment between allegiance to God and allegiance to a political party or cause. God is not exclusively on the side of Likud, Fatah, or Hamas, any more than he is on the side of the Conservative or Labour party. This is why I cannot tell you from here what political party or cause to support – at least, I cannot tell you which God would support.

As Simon said last week:

[T]here is a world of difference between standing firm in a position we take and standing firm in the Lord. Standing firm in the Lord is first a disposition to trust in God, not in a politician or a policy, not a moral stance or a treasured doctrine. They may be important, but they are not God, and to put them in the place of God is a form of idolatry. They come second. God comes first. Indeed, if we trust in God, if we come to believe that God’s way is the right way, then all our values will slowly be aligned to his. We will see others – especially those we differ with – in the way that God sees them. And that will, or at least should, affect the way we handle our differences. It’s not difficult to see that, from the perspective of faith, the more we learn to trust God, the more likely it is we will approach the world in a different way.

Although our Gospel text implies that the authority of our political powers is legitimate, it is also right to note that these authorities can abuse their power. All our governments are composed of flawed, imperfect human beings.

But that doesn’t mean we cannot imitate Jesus, as St Paul mentions in his letter to the Thessalonians – we can and we ought. Because by observing what Jesus does, we can come to know the heart of God, and by attempting to imitate Jesus, we might hope bring about the kind of world we want and need at the very depths of our souls: a world where hate dissolves into grace, where peace and patience deprive anger and resentment of their oxygen, where trauma finds redemption through persistent, unconditional love. Heady, soaring language, yes, verging on saccharine even – but do not reject these aspirations for their kitsch aesthetic. These hopes are embedded into the heart of humanity, and are the intended purpose of God’s creation. May our allegiance be to him – not to a political party or doctrine, but to him alone who rescues and saves.


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