Matthew 22:15-22 Taxes, Teaching, And Truth.
The context of this passage, it must be remembered, is the desire on the part of the Pharisees to trap Jesus in his answer to their question as to whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar (v. 15). Secondly, their disciples, and the Herodians sent with them, were instructed to flatter Jesus before asking him this question. They do this first of all, in addressing him as ‘Teacher’. Then they suggest admiration for him as a teacher because of their presumed love of the truth. “We know that you are true” (v. 16a). This is an interesting claim. One could diverge here on the very question of how one knows anything at all, that is epistemology or the study of knowledge. Furthermore, this inevitably does raise the issue of what is truth, and just exactly how can one be sure that they know the truth? In short, they were coming to him because they claimed to know that Jesus was one who taught “the way of God in truth” (v. 16b).
Thirdly, they also suggest that they know him to be a man who is not influenced negatively by the pressure of others. We might infer that they were saying more than this, that Jesus really didn’t care about anyone, and if this were the case they would feel at home with him, since this describes everything we know about the Pharisees (v. 16c). Fourthly, from their question it is clear that they didn’t know what Jesus thought about their question. Finally, it must be noted that they were also conspiring with the Herodians. Very early on the Pharisees had “plotted with the Herodians against Him, how they might destroy Him” (Mk. 2:6). Jesus had warned his disciples to beware of the leaven of both (Mk. 8:15), that they had been trying to catch Jesus in his words for some time (Mk. 12:13). This was a political alliance, as the Herodians, as supporters of Herod, were allied with Rome. (NGSB. 1565)
All of the above is described by Matthew as wickedness on their part, which Jesus had perceived, and why he said, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites” (v. 18)? They were hypocrites, because they claimed to be desirous of knowing the truth all the while seeking to frame Jesus in some perceived lie. They were also hypocritical with their flattery, when their only intent was to destroy him. It was an interesting question given the two parties involved. “The hated pole tax symbolized submission to Rome. If Jesus simply advocated payment of the tax, He would alienate the people; if He encouraged nonpayment the Herodians would accuse Him of treason.” (NGSB. 1542) In other words, the former would be cause for the Pharisees against Jesus, whereas the latter scenario would be cause for the Herodians. So these two groups conspired together knowing that Jesus’ answer would soon cause them to part ways.
All of this makes the simplicity of Jesus’ answer all the more telling. Since it was Caesar’s image on the money, he clearly had the jurisdiction on its use (vv.19-21a). “Jesus answer turns the question to a deeper issue, ultimate allegiance to God. The coin bearing the image of Caesar belongs to him; human beings made in the image of God belong to God” (NGSB. 1542). Later on Paul and Peter would expound further on a Christian’s duty with respect to the civil authorities (Cf. Rom. 13:1-7; I Pet. 2:13-15). However, it is clear that there was nothing in Jesus answer that either party could use against him – they marveled and went their own way. This is what faces anyone with respect to Jesus, marvelling at his teaching is not enough. Either he does in fact teach the truth, and therefore should be followed, or one marvels but then goes their own way (v. 22). Some simply say with Pilate – “What is truth?” (Jn. 18:38)