Dig Deeper into Sunday’s Gospel: Read Matthew 22:15–21
Many summers ago, during a mission trip, I walked into a bar with my mission leader. I was twenty-three years old then, and we both knew that the rule was that anyone over twenty-one could have one drink in one sitting. Knowing this, I mentioned I would order a whiskey and Sprite. My mission leader responded, “It’s fine if you order a beer, but I’d rather you not order a whiskey.” I was indignant. I felt my rights were under attack, and I didn’t understand why he was laying down the law when the “one drink, one sitting” rule never specified a type of alcohol. Angry and offended, I ordered water instead and began nursing my grievance, making him the tyrant and me the innocent victim.
Still wounded and fuming the next day, I spoke to one of my female teammates about the situation. I had done nothing wrong and was sure she would take my side. Wrong again. Instead of vindicating my harmless desire for whiskey over beer, she asked, “Have you ever prayed about how you respond to authority?” Ouch! And obviously not. It had never even crossed my mind to pray about such a thing, but I knew in my heart that she had a point.
After praying about the matter, God revealed I had little respect for authority. I disagreed with my mission leader’s decision, but he was in charge. He was responsible for ensuring we were living up to the “missionary” title, and even if it was only one drink, beer contains less alcohol than whiskey. The best way for me to honor God on the trip was to obey the decisions of my leaders.
What is your attitude toward authority?
You may have never considered this question, but each of us holds a specific attitude toward those in power that drives our response to rules and the level of trust with which we regard the people who make our laws.
Some of us are rule followers. For better or worse, we find comfort and control in obedience to authority and rarely stray from a rule set before us.
Others hold distrust and disdain for authority. We may have been harmed, manipulated, or abused by someone in a position of authority. Instead of using their power to serve and lead others to virtue, they used it to serve themselves at our expense. If you have been caught up in a situation like this, please know that you experienced a terrible misuse of power. God sees you. He sits with you and will ultimately bring justice and restoration.
Most of us have a problem submitting to authority because we see ourselves as best suited to make decisions. We think we are smarter and wiser than those above us and would rather be in control.
The gospel this week, however, teaches us that God gives authority, and nine times out of ten, we honor Him when we honor those in earthly positions of power.
In Matthew 22:15–21, the Pharisees and the Herodians, like most of us, had a real problem with authority. Historically, these two groups did not like each other but united over their mutual hatred for Jesus. Jesus had publicly undermined their dominance by calling out their tyranny and hypocrisy. Then, they banded together to take their revenge.
Using empty words of flattery, they told Jesus how great He was and then asked Him if it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor (Matthew 22:16–17).
Keep in mind that the Jews lived under Rome’s iron thumb. The taxes they paid were blatant signs of Israel’s submission to Caesar, and certain Jewish sects believed that to pay them was a “God-dishonoring badge of slavery.”
If Jesus answered that they should pay the taxes, He could have been seen as denying God’s sovereignty over Israel. If He said they should not be paid, Jesus would make himself an enemy of Caesar.
Knowing the hearts of these men, Jesus told the men to bring him a Roman coin. Once they did, He asked them whose face was on the denarius. They said it was the emperor’s face on the currency, and Jesus answered, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Matthew 22:21).
With these words, Jesus evaded the trap. Instead of choosing one or the other, He affirmed that God is the ultimate authority over our lives and has given others earthly jurisdiction over us. Whether we like it or not, and most of us don’t, it is part of human nature to live under authority. We are born into families under the hierarchy of our parents, and we live in governments that exercise power over our cities, states, and countries.
Lived rightly, these power dynamics teach those with power how to humble themselves in obedience to God and use their position to serve others, and it guides those under authority to humble themselves and act in compliance with the person in charge. Either way, both parties learn humility and obedience, two virtues we need to develop to live lives that please God.
However, Jesus knew better than you and I do that hierarchical structures rarely live according to God’s design. Broken people use power in distorted ways, and it would be a distortion of power that would lead Jesus to His death. Yet, His call to dual citizenship—obedience to earthly and heavenly authority—still stands. So, in a world that hates submission to authority, where people misuse their dominion more often than not, how do we answer this call?
First, we answer this call by becoming excellent citizens where we live. We take our rights and responsibilities to municipalities seriously and perform them well. We vote, pay taxes, care for our neighbors, and honor the laws. We glorify God by ensuring our local communities are better because we live in them.
The key, however, to doing this well is that we live our earthly citizenship in ultimate submission to our heavenly citizenship. We submit to earthly authorities what they demand of us in obedience to God. We allow Him to form our minds, hearts, and wills. We spend our lives getting to know Him, learning to see the world through His eyes, and living in ways that matter to Him. In the words of Bible scholar Matthew Henry, “If our purses are Caesar’s, our consciences are God’s.” This means that our final allegiance belongs to God when these two authorities conflict.
In a world that is too filled with pride to submit to authority, let us live differently and fulfill Christ’s call to become excellent citizens of heaven and earth. Let us humbly and virtuously submit to the leaders in our lives, knowing that ultimately, we belong to our Heavenly Father, who has never abused His power but uses it for our ultimate good, making us saints along the way.
Food for thought or journaling…
What is your attitude toward the earthly authorities in your life? Do you find obedience to them easy or hard? Do you find it easy or difficult to trust them? How might God ask you to change your attitude toward authority so that you can be more obedient to Him?
Dear Lord, You created us to be excellent citizens of earth and of heaven. Please reveal to me how I can better honor the authorities You have placed in my life and how I can use the authority You have given me over others to serve You better. Help me to remember that You are sovereign over all and that obedience to You always brings true freedom and flourishing in my life. Amen.
 David Guzick, “Study Guide for Matthew 22,” Blue Letter Bible (accessed 10/9/2023): https://www.blueletterbible.org/comm/guzik_david/study-guide/matthew/matthew-22.cfm?a=951015.
 Matthew Henry, “Commentary on Matthew 22,” Blue Letter Bible (accessed 10/9/2023): https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/mhc/Mat/Mat_022.cfm?a=951015.