The Divine Lamp

Father MacEvilly’s Commentary on Matthew 22:15-21

Posted by Dim Bulb on October 15, 2013

Mat 22:15  Then the Pharisees going, consulted among themselves how to insnare him in his speech.

“Then the Pharisees consulting,” &c. From the other Evangelists it would seem it was those whom He had been addressing previously, viz., the Chief Priests and ancients (21:23), that did so. However, the Pharisees were included in the others, and especially under the term, “Scribes.” But the Pharisees are in a special manner said to be the instigators or concocters of this scheme, to insnare our Redeemer, both, because they were most hostile to Him, and among them, especially the following captious question was agitated. Instead of being struck with feelings of dread at the punishment menaced by our Redeemer, and conceiving feelings of true sorrow, they become more hardened in their iniquity, and endeavour to insnare Him.

Mat 22:16  And they sent to him their disciples with the Herodians, saying: Master, we know that thou art a true speaker and teachest the way of God in truth. Neither carest thou for any man: for thou dost not regard the person of men.

“They sent their disciples”—St. Mark, “some of the Pharisees” (12:13); St. Luke calls them, “spies” (20:20). They do not question Him themselves, as they were well known to Him, and their object would be at once seen through. They join with these some of their own disciples, whom they supposed to be unknown to our Redeemer. “The Herodians.” Who these were, cannot be known for certain. Some say, they refer to that class among the Jews, who were in favour of paying tribute to Cæsar, and they were called “Herodians,” after Herod, who, being the creature of the Romans, favoured their cause, and promoted it by all possible means. These the Pharisees bring with them to consult our Redeemer on this delicate and agitated question, in order to insure His denunciation to the Roman authorities, in case He expressed on opinion against the payment of taxes (Luke 20:20). Others say, they were the soldiers and domestics of Herod Antipas, who was then at Jerusalem, on the occasion of the celebration of the Pasch. Others say, they were the public officers, appointed by Herod, to collect the Roman tribute in Judea. Others maintain, that they belonged to the sect of the Sadducees, whose doctrines were embraced by Herod. Finally, it is maintained by others, that they formed a peculiar religious sect among the Jews, who maintained, that Herod the Great was the Messias, the sceptre having in his time passed from the tribe of Juda (Gen. 49:10) Herod favoured this class very much. In order to uphold these false notions, he slew the holy Innocents, and built a magnificent temple, rivalling that of Solomon.

“Master,” &c. Full of deceit and dissimulation, they approach our Redeemer with affected feelings of the greatest respect, and they address to Him the language of the grossest flattery, thus hoping to throw Him off his guard, and to elicit from Him the desired answer, unfavourable to the payment of tribute. “Master,” signifies not only a teacher of the law, but a lending personage vested with authority. “True,” i.e., sincere, candid, “speaker.” “The way of God,” that is, the will, the law of God, which conducts us to God, to grace, and glory. “In truth,” without any admixture of error. “Neither carest Thou for any one,” &c., that is, Thou art not afraid of any one, however powerful, so as to be deterred from courageously announcing the truth. In this it is insinuated, that others were deterred, by the fear of Cæsar, from giving utterance to their real sentiments, on the subject of paying tribute to the Romans.

“Not regard the person of men.” For the meaning of having “respect of persons” (see Rom. 2:11), where it is shown, that in His dealing with men, God can never be liable to this charge. In these hollow, hypocritical praises, bestowed by the Pharisees on our Divine Redeemer, they pronounced their own condemnation; for, if He were such as they affected to believe, why reject His teaching.

Mat 22:17  Tell us therefore what dost thou think? Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?

The question proposed by the Pharisees was a most captious one, and calculated to involve our Redeemer in a dilemma, whichever answer He would give. If He answered in the negative, that it was not lawful to give tribute to Cæsar, then, the Herodians were present to give evidence against Him to the Governor (Luke 20:20), and charge Him with preaching sedition and disaffection to the reigning authorities (Luke 23:5). If He replied in the affirmative, then they would render Him odious with the people, who hated the rule of the Romans, and regarded it as unbecoming in the people of God, to be subject, or pay tribute to infidels and unbelievers. They would thus damage His ministry, by bringing it into disrepute; and by charging Him with favouring the hated dominion of the Romans, they would endeavour to show, that He was indifferent in regard to the spiritual interests and exalted privileges of the people of God; that, far from having any claim to be considered their true King, their long-expected Messias, He was only a false Messias, the enemy of the Jewish people. The discussion about the lawfulness of paying tribute to Cæsar, originated about thirty years before this, with a certain Judas of Galilee. History clearly attests the cause that gave rise to the subjection of the Jews to the Romans, and the consequent payment of tribute to them. The disputes for the office of High Priest, between Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, the nephews of Simon, the High Priest, who was brother to Judas Machabeus, caused them to solicit the mediation of Pompey, then at the head of the Roman armies in the East. Pompey having adjudicated in favour of Hyrcanus, the elder of the two brothers, Aristobulus resisted both Hyrcanus and Pompey. The consequence was, that Hyreanus, being of himself unable to maintain his power, handed it over to the Romans, and this cession was ratified by the chief men among the Jews, such a course being, in their minds, the only safeguard against anarchy and bloodshed Pompey imposed a tax, which, although not a fixed annual one, was to be paid occasionally, according to the wants of the Republic, whenever it was exacted by the Romans. It was only in the time of Augustus, after the enrolment under Cyrinus, about the period of our Redeemer’s birth, that this casual taxation was changed into a fixed annual tax, levied by capitation, to be paid in coin, bearing the name and image of the reigning Emperor. The imposition of this tax, in connexion with subjection to the Romans, was by no means relished by the Jewish nation. Hence, in the time of Augustus, about thirty years before this, a certain Judas of Galilee (Acts 5:37; Josephus, Lib. 18, Antiq.), raised the standard of revolt. He asserted, that it was unworthy of the people of God, the true sons of the faithful Abraham, who owed tribute to God alone, to be subject, or pay taxes to infidels and idolatrous Gentiles. Both himself and his followers all perished, at the hands of the Romans. However, the spirit he evoked had, to some extent, survived him, and no question was more fiercely agitated among the Jews, than whether or not, it was lawful to give tribute to Cæsar. The Pharisees and the bulk of the people, held the unlawfulness, as far as they could securely do so. The Herodians and the followers of the Romans, on the other hand, maintained its lawfulness. This sect of Galileans, followers of Judas, had raised several tumults in Judea, and provoked the chastisement of the ruling powers. It is to them, most likely, allusion is made (Luke 13:1). It was in vindication of their false and erroneous principles, that, after this, they rose in rebellion against the Romans, which ended in the utter ruin of their chief city, and the irreparable destruction and dispersion of the Jewish race, under Titus and Vespasian. Our Redeemer and His Apostles, being Galileans, might readily be suspected of favouring the false principles of this Judas. Hence, our Redeemer, by His own example, and the teaching of His Apostles, inculcates so clearly the obedience due to temporal powers (Rom. 13; 1 Peter 2:13).

Mat 22:18  But Jesus knowing their wickedness, said: Why do you tempt me, ye hypocrites?

“But Jesus, knowing their wickedness, said,” &c. Our Redeemer shows Himself superior to the artifices whereby it was sought to entrap Him. They thought to insnare Him by their false, hollow professions of respect, and by captious questions. On the other hand, He exposes their hypocrisy, while, in affecting to exhibit respect for Him, and to ascertain the truth, they only wished to lay snares for Him. They were thus quite different from what they pretended to be. “Ye hypocrites.” Hence, showing His omniscience, He exposes their inmost thoughts, and proves that He Himself was, in reality, what they affected to believe Him to be—a truthful, fearless teacher, who is not deterred by any persons from announcing the truth, as He does here in regard to them.

“Why do ye tempt Me?” to give utterance to sentiments opposed to the submission due to the ruling powers in the State; or, rather, why desire to catch Me in My words, while affecting respect for Me, and a desire of knowing the truth?

Mat 22:19  Shew me the coin of the tribute. And they offered him a penny.

“Show me the coin of tribute,” that is, the coin which Cæsar exacts in tribute from each person. The other Evangelists (Mark 12:15; Luke 20:24), say, He told them to bring Him “a penny;” but, probably, these Evangelists expressed themselves thus, because a penny, or denarius, was the coin showed to our Redeemer; although, most likely, He expressed Himself, as is here described by St. Matthew. “The coin of tribute” was a certain description of money which the Roman Emperors got struck off, as the coin to be paid in tribute. It was a penny, a Roman denarius, and, most likely, it was of a larger or smaller size, according to the amount levied on each individual. This coin must have come from the Roman mint, inasmuch as the Jews would not have impressed the image of any man, according to their law, much less of a Pagan and idolater, on any of their coins. It was silver; for, we are informed by Pliny (Lib. 33, c. 3), that the Romans exacted tribute in silver, not in gold. The value of this denarius, in our currency, is not easily ascertained. Those who hold that in (c. 17:23) there is question of a tax paid to the Romans, say, that the didrachma, being nearly equivalent to two denarii, the tax demanded of each was a penny or denarius doubled, or two denarii, unless we say, that the size and value of each denarius varied, according to circumstances, and that Tiberius got struck off denarii, to be paid by the Jews, of a size equalling two drachmæ each. So that, according to the increase or decrease of the tribute, denarii were struck off, of lesser or greater size and value. But, as we maintained, that in c. 17, there is question of quite a different tax, the question does not concern us.

Mat 22:20  And Jesus saith to them: Whose image and inscription is this?

The image of the reigning princes was usually stamped on the current coins of their respective realms, as we find to be now the universal practice. Our Redeemer, although He already know whose image was impressed, now asks the question, partly with a view of having them solve their own question, by the answer He would elicit from them; and partly, to show that earthly wealth was of no concern to Him.

Mat 22:21  They say to him: Caesar’s. Then he saith to them: Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God, the things that are God’s.

“Cæsar’s.” Tiberius Cæsar, who was then in the eighteenth year of his reign.

“Render, therefore, to Cæsar, the things that are Cæsar’s,” &c. This would seem to be a conclusion suggested by the exhibition of tax money bearing, impressed on it, the image of Cæsar; a conclusion evidently insinuating, although not expressing it, that tribute might lawfully be paid to Cæsar; for, their question was not, whether it was their bounden duty, or whether it was an obligation on them to pay tribute to Cæsar. Hence, in His answer, He altogether abstracts from the fact, whether the Romans were their lawful sovereigns, or had acquired a just, legitimate dominion over them or not. The question was, whether the Jews, the chosen people of God, were justified in paying tribute to infidels and idolaters. It arose out of the heresy propounded by Judas and his followers, regarding the privileges of the Jews, and their exemption from earthly sovereignty, as the chosen people of God. Hence, they ask, is it “lawful to give?” &c. Our Redeemer’s answer embraces the question expressed, and its implied reason, and, without directly answering their question, He so frames His reply, as to utterly baffle them, and confound their malice.

Some say, that our Redeemer’s answer means, that it was lawful to pay this tribute. “Give to Cæsar.” No doubt, this is implied, and easily inferred; but, still, the admiration which His answer elicited (v. 22), evidently shows, the Pharisees, &c., did not regard Him as expressly saying so; for, He would have thus fallen into the snare they laid for Him, and incurred the odious alternative, intended by them, of rendering Himself obnoxious to the people.

The connexion of our Redeemer’s conclusion, “Render, therefore, unto Cæsar,” &c., and the mode in which it is deduced from the foregoing is differently explained. According to some, by the very fact of the Jews using the money, stamped with the Emperor’s image, and this for the purpose of paying tribute, “numisma census,” they acknowledged themselves to be Cæsar’s subjects; and, hence, they should pay him tribute. This reasoning does not seem conclusive to others (although there is some force in the words, “numisma census”) inasmuch as one nation may, for commercial purposes, use the money coined under the sovereign of a different State, as the Jews, most likely, used Roman as well as Greek coin, before their subjection to the Romans. Hence, they explain it thus: As the money they used was Roman coin, there can be nothing unlawful, or opposed to the law of God, in giving back, “rendering” “reddite Cæsari,” &c., to the Romans, Roman coin. The question proposed, regarded not the claim of Cæsar to receive tribute, but the lawfulness of giving it to him, on the part of the Jews.

Our Redeemer, at the same time, in order to meet the charge of neglecting the interests of God’s people, to which the foregoing answer might render Him liable, adds, “and unto God the things that are God’s,” in which He would seem tacitly to hint, that the Pharisees were quite indifferent about the interests of God, the paying Him tithes, &c., rendering honour and reverence, which seemed to cause them so much anxiety, and in defence of which they affected to have some scruples about paying tribute to Cæsar.

Others (among the rest, Jansenius Iprensis), hold, that no inference can be drawn from our Redeemer’s answer, as to whether tribute was to be paid to Cæsar or not.

As the Pharisees insidiously proposed to Him a captious question, with a view of insnaring Him, He, therefore, avoids giving them any definite answer; and He so shapes His reply, that they could not infer what the things were which they should pay unto Cæsar, whether it was tribute, or honour, or obedience; at the same time, He propounds Cæsar’s rights, whatever they were; and thus, without involving Himself with the Jews, or running counter to their prejudices on the subject of paying tribute (for in the words, “the things that are Cæsar’s,” He makes no mention of tribute), He avoids coming in collision with the temporal authorities. Neither can they deduce anything definite from His answer to the second part, “and unto God,” &c.

One conclusion, however, is clearly deducible from our Redeemer’s words, viz., that the discharge of the obligations, due to temporal authority, is by no means inconsistent with those we owe Almighty God, or His Church, which is His direct, immediate, and supernaturally constituted representative on this earth, and vice versa. All Christians, of whatever rank, order, or degree, who are not themselves the occupants of supreme power, owe, without exception, civil allegiance to secular authority, and are bound to discharge the duties which it entails, be the occupants of power, Pagan or Christian, Protestant or Catholic; and this, not only from fear of punishment, but also from motives of conscience. However, this duty of obedience, which is entailed by civil allegiance, has its limits. (See Rom. 13; Titus 3; 1 Peter 2:13; Commentary on.) Circumstances may also arise where, under certain conditions, resistance to civil authority, and, if necessary, the deposition of unjust, tyrannical rulers, even of these legitimately established, is allowable. (See Murray, “Annual Miscellany,” vol. ii.) These conditions, it is generally agreed upon, are—1. If the tyranny be excessive and intolerable. 2. If it be manifest to men of probity and good sense. 3. If the evils actually endured exceed those that would ensue from resisting and deposing a tyrant. 4. If resistance be the only available means to get rid of tyranny and its evils. 5. If there be a moral certainty of success. But, as these conditions are seldom found to concur; hence, practically, it is but very rarely allowable to have recourse to the extreme remedy of resistance to legitimately constituted authority, even when acting tyrannically. (See St. Thomas, Lib. 1, do regimine Principum; also 2da 2dæ Quest. 42, Art. 2, ad 3m; St. Augustine, Lib. 17; de civitate Dei, et de Unit. Eeclesiæ, c. 21; Suarez, De. fid. Lib. 6, c. 4, &c.)

The Church, the Divine spouse of Christ, united to her Divinely-appointed head, who is the vicegerent of Christ on earth, on whom has been bestowed the full power of binding and loosing, and the exceptional privilege of infallibly deciding questions of faith and morals, should be regarded as the direct guardian of the interests of God. From him she derives, directly and immediately, all the powers and privileges which He supernaturally bestowed on her. The duty of obedience we owe her, as the immediate representative of God, belongs to another order, and is different from that which we owe temporal authority. The civil authority of the State, and the spiritual authority of the Church, are independent in their respective spheres; confined to their proper bounds, they can never clash. Both come from God, who assigns to each its proper limits, its distinct rights and prerogatives. In the words, “render unto God the things that are God’s,” temporal rulers and governors are restrained from intermeddling in the spiritual concerns of God and His Church. If they do, they are to be regarded as detestable tyrants; and their ordinances, particularly if they enjoin anything opposed to the law of God, and the inalienable independence of His Church, are to be disobeyed as a matter of duty, and resisted, at the sacrifice of personal liberty, of all the goods of fortune, nay, even of life itself. Of this, the history of the Church in all ages, furnishes us with the most edifying examples, in the persons of those fearless champions, who regarded life itself of little value, when the defence of the liberties of the Church, and the interests of religion, were in question. At this very moment, is not the entire Church edified by the fearless intrepidity exhibited by the aged prisoner of the Vatican, whose unchanging reply to every insidious overture that might compromise the liberties of the Church, and the rights of the Holy See, is “non possumus;” and of those holy confessors, the victims of German despotism, who, from the depths of their prison cells, bear testimony to the truth?

The words, “render unto God the things that are God’s,” forcibly remind each individual of his obligation to observe the Commandments, and execute the holy will of God, so as to render his soul agreeable in His sight, and so to cultivate all its faculties as to promote, in all things, the greater glory of God. As “the coin of the tribute” was stamped with the image of Cæsar, which showed his claim to the payment of tribute; so, have our souls impressed upon them God’s image and likeness, assimilated to Him in their spiritual power, and reflecting Him in the triple faculty of memory, understanding, and will. All the faculties, therefore, of our souls, all their operations, should tend to God, in whom alone, after all the sorrows, and turmoil, and warfare of this life, they are ultimately to find eternal rest, peace, and happiness. Have we so disposed all our thoughts, words, and actions, as to render them subservient to God’s greater glory? Have we rendered unto God, in the several circumstances of life, all that are “His?” All things that we have are from Him, therefore, all that we have or are, should be, in turn, referred back to Him.

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