The Gospel reading for Sunday, October 16 continues with the extended multi-part discourse by Jesus known as the Sermon in the Temple. The first major discourse in Matthew’s Gospel is the Sermon on the Mount, which spans three chapters. The Sermon on the Temple is Jesus’ final major multi-part discourse, spanning five chapters from Matthew 21 to 25. The Gospel passage can be accessed here for the Catholic Lectionary, and here for the Revised Common Lectionary.
In the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus initiates his preaching ministry with the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus interprets the Law and the Prophets, and offers hope to the crowd and to his disciples. He speaks of the beatitudes, urges his disciples to be forgiving, and tells the crowd that some of the old Levitic law, such as the rule on divorce, cannot be taken literally.
The Sermon in the Temple
Towards the end of Jesus’ ministry, we have what might be considered a “book-end” or paired discourse vis-a-vis the Sermon on the Mount. It is the Sermon in the Temple, given during the Holy Week of Passover, just a few days before Jesus will be arrested. The Sermon in the Temple (chaps. 21-25) is, almost in its entirety, a concluding, and somewhat confrontational debate with the religious leaders.
In chapters 21 and 22, we find Jesus speaking with the elders, the Pharisees and Sadducees in the Temple courtyard. In chapter 23, Jesus then appeals to the crowd in regard to the Temple leaders. In chapter 24, Jesus departs from the Temple and, in speaking with his disciples, predicts that there will be not left… a stone that will not be thrown down from the Temple. In chapter 25, he concludes his public engagement by telling his disciples to be vigilant for the coming of the Lord.
The Pharisees Try to Trap Jesus
In Matthew 22:15-21, we are told the Pharisees attempt to lead Jesus into saying something that might get him into trouble with the Roman authorities. We get the impression from Matthew’s Gospel that the Pharisees are the intellectuals among the religious leaders. They like to debate, and they like to win theological debates. In Matthew’s Gospel, the Pharisees take Jesus to task for picking grain on the Sabbath (12:1-2), healing the man with the withered hand (12:13-14) and dining with sinners and tax collectors (9:11). While Jesus preaches in the Temple, the Pharisees send their servants to try and entrap Jesus one last time:
“Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man
and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.
And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion,
for you do not regard a person’s status.
Tell us, then, what is your opinion:
Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”
The Pharisees’s servants tell Jesus, in public, that he teaches the way of God in accordance with the truth. We know that the Pharisees have already plotted against Jesus (Mt 12:14), so their flattery appears so insincere as to be laughable. At the same time, Jesus is preaching in the public area of the Temple. The Pharisee’s servants need to feign civility as long as Jesus is around a large, friendly crowd that is not hand-picked by the authorities.
Rather than try to outdo him in an argument, the servants attempt to force Jesus to publicly take a position on a matter of politically sensitivity among the Jews. The Pharisees are trying to beat Jesus at his own rhetorical game. Just as Jesus asked the Temple elders to choose between the unpopular Herod and the popular John the Baptist, now the Pharisees up the ante and ask Jesus to choose between opposing or supporting the tax imposed by the occupying power – the Roman Empire.
Is Jesus Preaching Political or Spiritual Reform?
Let’s not forget why Matthew would have thought it important to include this passage in his Gospel. Matthew is himself a tax collector. Matthew mentions the term tax collector nine times in his Gospel.1 And this story constitutes the third account of tax collectors and tax collection. For the citizens of Jerusalem, the question of paying taxes to foreigners is a sensitive topic, since the region is predominantly Jewish, yet the political authorities to whom the taxes are paid (Herod in the north, Pilate in Jerusalem) are not.
Filius Divi – The Son of God
Matthew tells us that Jesus wisely avoids any potential confrontation with the Roman occupiers. In answering the question, Jesus asks the Pharisees to produce the coin with Caesar’s image on it. This is a coin that Jesus would never carry, especially since the Roman coin contains Caesar’s image. What’s worse, the inscription states TI.CAESAR.DIVI.AUGUST.F.AUGUSTUS – Tiberius Caesar, Revered Son of the Divine Augustus. Ironically, the Pharisees are quick to produce a coin with the blasphemous title, which says, in effect, Tiberius, son of god. Unsurprisingly, Jesus tells the Pharisees to return the coin minted by Tiberius, with its blasphemous inscription, back to him.
From Matthew’s perspective, this account is important in that it establishes that Jesus’ mission and ministry has little to do, nor is it concerned with, the Roman occupation. His primary interest is evangelization and preaching the Kingdom of God – a Kingdom which is not a political entity. By telling the Pharisees to render the coinage unto Caesar that belongs to him, Jesus is saying that the matter before the people of Israel is not entirely a question of foreign occupation, nor taxation without representation, nor of finding a political leader with the spine to boot the Romans.
Jesus preaches repentance of heart, not political regime change. We get the impression from the Sermon in the Temple that the religious leaders have yet to understand this, or if they do, they simply are not willing to undergo the conversion of heart of which Jesus speaks.
When Jesus was preaching in Galilee, he anticipated the stubborness of the Pharisees, in Matthew 15:12-14.
Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” He answered, “Every plant which my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”