© 2020 Evan D. Garner
“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When the Pharisees heard what Jesus said, they were amazed, and they left him and went away. Matthew tells us that they were amazed. But what do you think that means?
In English, our word “amaze” comes from a Middle English word (amasen), which means to bewilder or perplex. In other words, Jesus stunned them with his words. He confounded them. He bested them. And, since they knew that they had been beaten, they went away, ashamed.
But in Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written, the word (thaumadzo) carries a different connotation. Its root (thauma) is the word for miracle, and it means to wonder or marvel. The Pharisees were amazed. They marveled and wondered at what Jesus had said. They were impressed. And, since they knew that they had encountered something remarkable, they went away, in awe.
Because Matthew goes out of his way to let us know that the Pharisees were out to get Jesus—that they were plotting to entrap him and that they came to him with malice—we naturally assume that what happened between them was a confrontation from which there can be only one winner. We, too, are impressed by Jesus’ rhetorical skill, and, knowing who the bad guys are in the story, we are quick to credit Jesus with a resounding victory. But maybe we should hear this encounter a different way.
In his gospel account, Matthew is fond of the word “amaze,” using it ten different times. And each time it reveals a moment of conversion. The disciples were amazed when Jesus stilled the storm and when he withered the fig tree—both signs of the divine power working within him. The crowds were amazed when Jesus cast out evil spirits. Pontius Pilate was amazed when Jesus uttered not a single word in self-defense. Even Jesus himself was amazed when the Roman Centurion showed enough faith to trust that Jesus could heal his sick servant from a distance. When Matthew uses the word “amaze,” he does so to show the reader that something has changed within the heart or mind of a character in the gospel—that something new has been revealed and understood—and that’s what’s going on within the hearts and minds of the Pharisees, who came to Jesus in order to put him to the test but who left with something new to think about.
When we read this passage, we usually think that the Pharisees put Jesus in an impossible spot. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” they asked him. But what’s so hard about answering that? We are told that the Pharisees took some of the Herodians with him—people who were loyal to the puppet regime that the Romans had set up in Palestine. But they wouldn’t have been surprised to hear a firebrand rabbi talking big about refusing to pay the emperor’s taxes. Sure, they could have used such a statement against him in legal proceedings, but, by this point, Jesus was already in Jerusalem for a showdown with the authorities. What did he have to lose? Why not just tell them what they wanted to hear? Why not say, “This land was promised to our ancestor Abraham. It belongs to us. I have come to take back David’s throne. Let’s show the emperor where he can put those taxes!”? Why not say the thing that nearly everyone wanted to hear? Because you can’t make God’s kingdom come by throwing gasoline on a fire—even if you’re right.
We want to win. The stakes are high, and we want to win. We want to show everyone on the other side that they are wrong and that we are right, and that might be true, but what are we accomplishing by shaming those who disagree with us? What does God gain when we demonize those on the other side? Look instead at what Jesus did. When the Pharisees came to him and asked whether it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, he asked them for the coin that was used for the tax. He asked them for the coin because, somewhat ironically, he didn’t have one and because he was betting that they would. Then he asked them to name whose head and title were found on the coin, asking them to acknowledge the graven image that had been kept in their pockets. And finally he asked them to decide for themselves how they would navigate the theologically confusing world of living under the authority of a pagan emperor yet refusing to accept the authority of anyone except God alone.
Jesus wasn’t the only one who had to figure this out. They did, too. And, instead of taking a side and scoring some cheap points with the crowd, Jesus held up to his opponents the deeper reality that they all faced together. All of them had to figure out how to be faithful to God while doing everyday things under Roman occupation like carrying around coins and paying taxes. In the end, the Pharisees were amazed. That doesn’t mean that they went away converted to Jesus’ cause. This kind of conversion—this sort of amazement—is more subtle than that. They went away aware of something new—with a new sense that even Jesus, this tradition-challenging, authority-questioning rabbi who threatened everything that they thought mattered, was striving to be faithful to God, and, despite all their expectations, could find a way to invite them to do the same.
Are things all that different for us? We believe that God’s reign has broken through in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. We believe that, in Christ, God is turning the world upside down. But we can’t make that kingdom come any faster or any more fully by throwing shade on our opponents. As sure as we are that we are on the right side of history, we can’t make God’s kingdom come by besting those who think that we’re wrong. Instead, we have to let God amaze them. We have to invite them to see that God is at work in the people and places where they never expected to find God. We have to ask them to consider what it means to be faithful to God in their own circumstances—not because we know the answer but because we’re all still trying our best to figure that out. Imagine what would happen if, after engaging in serious political, economic, or theological debate, we all walked away amazed—not converted to each other’s side but converted to the possibility that God is at work in all who seek to be faithful.
Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s. In the end, you can’t separate the two. But you can be faithful to God in both.