Friday, March 12
Matthew 18:21-35: The foregoing theme of forgiveness by the Church now introduces the subject of personal forgiveness by members within the Church (verses 21-35). This latter aspect is introduced by Peter’s use of the word “brother.” The question still has to do with family relationships in the Holy Spirit. The Church, then, is still the context.
This passage also has to do with real offenses, such as theft, cheating, or lying. Peter does not ask, “How many times must I permit my brother to annoy me or get on my nerves.” Some more serious offense is envisioned in this mandate to forgive.
The response of Jesus can be translated as either “seventy-seven” or seventy times seven.” The point of the mandate is not the precise number, whether 77 or 490. It means, rather, that there must be no limit to our forgiveness. Forgiveness cannot be allowed to become a quantitative commodity in limited supply.
After all, how does God forgive? He does not limit His mercy to our first seven offenses. He forgives us at our repentance, no matter how often we fall. We too, then, are called to forgive in the same measure. Such abundance of mercy will become the burden of the parable that follows (verses 23-35).
Jesus’ response to Peter alludes to Genesis 4:24—“ If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” This line from Lamech is a sort of culmination of the growing violence that followed man’s fall in the Garden. That fall led immediately to the murder of Abel (4:8), which led immediately to the prospect of vengeance (4:14) and then greater vengeance (4:15), leading in Lamech’s case to the equivalent of total warfare. Jesus’ response to Peter indicates that the Gospel must go in the opposite direction, placing no limits on forgiveness.
The parable that follows, which is proper to Matthew, does not exactly illustrate the mandate to forgive without limits. It indicates, rather, that we are to forgive in the measure that our heavenly Father forgives us. Thus, the parable advances the Lord’s argument with a new consideration—the massive disproportion between the debt that one man may owe to another and the incomparable debt that every man owes to God. This ridiculous disproportion is the basis of the parable’s irony.
The debt that the servant owes to the master is calculated at ten thousand talents, a figure that would amount to billions of dollars in today’s money. Consequently, the payment of the debt was beyond the servant’s ability to repay; the debtor would be in debtors’ prison forever. This is an image of eternal loss.
The proposed selling of the wife and children is a metaphor; this could not have happened in Jewish Law in Jesus’ time. Even if it could, the sale price would not pay the debt. Hence, the servant’s resolve to pay the whole debt (verse 26) was futile on its face.
In this parable, then, we discern two aspects of God. The first is His mercy, His compassion for man’s distress. God forgives the repentant. The debt is absolved because of the master’s compassion (splangchnistheis–verse 27).
The second aspect is God’s anger (orgistheis–verse 34), prompted by man’s refusal to copy the divine compassion. The servant is condemned for not imitating his master’s mercy. Instead he declines to forgive the piddling liability of a fellow servant.
In this parable Matthew returns to the message already contained in the Lord’s Prayer and the Sermon on the Mount (6:14-15).
It is important likewise to observe the intervention of the “fellow servants,” an act that continues this chapter’s theme of the Church. We remark that the master reacts to the situation at the behest of the Church, the two or three fellow servants who are gathered in his name. Indeed, the irony of the story is disclosed by the intervention of the Church. The master in the parable listens to the case made by the Church. What was retained on earth was retained in heaven.
The wicked servant’s condemnation to torture (basanisais–verse 34) is eternal, because his debt is beyond payment. No one can pay it. This is an image of eternal damnation (cf. 25:41,46).
In short, it should be easy for a Christian to forgive seventy times seven times, knowing that God has forgiven him so much more.
Saturday, March 13
Matthew 19:1-10: At this point Matthew rejoins the narrative sequence in Mark, which he will follow for the rest of the book. However, as this section begins with Jesus’ move from Galilee, in the north, to Judea, in the south, Matthew and Luke begin to follow separate sequences, Luke inserting many stories that have no parallel in the other gospels (cf. Luke 9:51—18:14).
Matthew introduces his own narrative by mentioning the end (etelesen–verse 1) of Jesus’ previous discourse—namely, the preceding chapter on life in the Church. Each of Jesus’ five large discourses in ended in the same way (cf. 7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 26:1).
Jesus, moving south, goes somewhat eastward across the Jordan, avoiding a trip through Samaria. He is followed by “large” crowds (contrast with Mark 10:1), “to follow” being the normal word for discipleship.
In Mark’s parallel account (10:1), it is said that Jesus taught these crowds, whereas Matthew says that He “healed” them (etherapeusen–verse 2). The significance of this change is to be found in the light it sheds on the teaching that immediately follows. The following section deals with matters that we may call “domestic,” in the sense of having to do with the home (domus in Latin). This subject will include sex, children, and money, and on these matters Jesus will “heal” the people of common but fallacious opinions. These subjects—sex, child-raising, and finances—are the ones on which the views of the world are likely to be sick and in want of healing.
Each of these three subjects is introduced by certain individuals who approach Jesus: the Pharisees, the mothers bringing their children, the wealthy inquirer. It would seem that Matthew has arranged this material in a sequence that was usual in the catechetical practice of the
Christian Church. In fact, these three subjects are likewise treated together by St. Paul (cf. Ephesians 5:22—6:9; Colossians 3:18-25). The similarity of order between Matthew and Paul suggests these dominical sayings have been organized according to a standard and recognizable format.
There immediately follows, then, a teaching about sex, which includes marriage, divorce, and celibacy (verses 3-12), for which there is a partial parallel section in Mark 10:2-12.
The treatment of marriage and divorce comes in response to the question that the Pharisees put to Jesus, which question Matthew (alone) says was meant to “try” Him (peirazontes–verse 3). The context of the teaching, that is to say, was one of controversy. It is well known that the various rabbinical schools were distinguished from one another by what restrictions they place on divorce—some stricter, some not so strict. Jesus was being invited to enter that controversy.
Instead, He went straight to the creation account in Genesis, using it to forbid all divorce (cf. also 5:32). Jesus mentions no exceptions. Even the expression “not including fornication” (me epi porneia), which is often taken as a reason for divorce, is no exception to the rule. It simply means, “I am not talking about fornication.” That is to say, the prohibition against divorce applies only to a true marriage, not cases where a man and woman are living together in sin.
What is most striking about Jesus’ prohibition is that our Lord thereby abrogates the application of Deuteronomy 24:1, which did provide for divorce. Jesus would have none of it. Divorce for the purpose of remarriage with someone else is adultery.
It is unfortunate that many readers find in this text only another species of legalism with respect to marriage. In fact, this biblical passage has as much to say on the subject of Christology as of marriage. However, when this page is “consulted,” some question about marriage is usually the reason for the consultation, so the important Christological weight of the text is simply overlooked. Inspected more carefully, however, the Christological significance of the passage could hardly be weightier. Jesus, boldly abrogating a concession given in the Mosaic Law, laid claim to immense authority—truly, “all authority”–pasa exsousia, as He will say at the end of Matthew (28:18). This authority is nothing less than divine, and it is in recognition of this total authority that we find so many people in Matthew’s stories falling prostrate before Jesus.
It is curious to observe, nonetheless, that it was not His enemies who objected to this prohibition given by Jesus. It was the disciples themselves who wondered, if divorce was not permitted, whether remaining celibate might not be a more attractive option (verse 10). (We wonder why the prospect of a happy marriage did not cross their minds!)
Sunday, March 14
Matthew 19:11-15: Perhaps to their surprise, Jesus agreed with His disciples, not because of the indissolubility of marriage, but because celibacy is a superior expression of the Kingdom of Heaven (verse 12). Nonetheless, Jesus declared, celibacy is a gift from God, a grace not accorded to all men (verse 11).
Most Christians recognize that in this passage the reference to self-castration is a metaphor of irony, akin to the amputation of a hand or the gouging out of an eye mentioned in the previous chapter.
This section on celibacy is proper to Matthew, but its content is consonant with the general New Testament thesis of the superiority of consecrated celibacy over marriage (cf. Luke 14:20; 18:29; 1 Corinthians 7:25-35).
From a discussion about marriage Jesus passes to the subject of children (verses 13-15), in which He repeats the injunction indicated in 18:1-4.
The subject arises when children are brought to Jesus to receive His blessing (verse 13), a scene found in all the Synoptics (Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17). All of them likewise include the objection of the disciples against what they evidently regarded as an unwarranted intrusion on the Lord’s time and attention.
It has been suggested that the early (pre-Scriptural) Church preserved the memory of this scene because it answered a practical pastoral question about infant baptism. Read in this way, Jesus is affirming the practice of infant baptism: “Let the little children come to Me.” Indeed, the verb that Matthew uses here, koluein, “forbid them not,” is identical with the expression used with respect to the baptisms of the Ethiopian eunuch and the friends of Cornelius (Acts 8:36; 10:37; 11:17).
I do not think this interpretation of the passage to be likely, because there is simply no evidence in the New Testament that infant baptism was a problem. On the contrary, as the Christian replacement for circumcision, the reader should presume that baptism was available to infants, just as circumcision was, right from the beginning. In both cases it was admission to the covenant. It would be strange indeed, if Jewish children could belong to the Mosaic covenant, while Christian children could not partake of the Christian covenant.
Moreover, the baptism of entire households in the New Testament (Acts 11:14; 16:15,31-33) indicates that it was normal to baptize infants in Christian families. Although the pastoral practice of the Christian Church varied in this matter, the “validity” of infant baptisms was not challenged for well over a thousand years. Consequently, to see a reference to a “controversy” about infant baptism in these lines of Matthew seems to me an unlikely interpretation.
Monday, March 15
Matthew 19:16-22: The third subject in this chapter—money—is introduced by a man that comes to our Lord, seeking counsel on how to attain eternal life (verse 16). This scene is paralleled in Mark 10:17-22 and Luke 18:18-23.
If we are to look for another link between this section and the preceding theme of children, perhaps we find it in the fact that the question is asked by a “young person” (neaniskos). Indeed, this feature is unique to Matthew. Both Mark and Luke suggest, in fact, that the man may not be young, because he claims to have kept all the commandments “from my youth,” an expression that Matthew’s account does not contain.
In authentic Deuteronomic style the man is told to “keep the commandments” (less explicit in Mark and Luke) if he wishes to enter into life (verse 17; Deuteronomy 4:10; 30:6). This hypothetical clause is proper to Matthew, as is the next hypothesis, “if you would be perfect” (verse 21).
From this hypothesis regarding perfection, the Church in due course came to distinguish the monastic vocation from the vocation of other Christians. This was a reasonable inference drawn from the Sacred Text. Just as not everyone is called to consecrated celibacy (verses 11-12), so not everyone is called to consecrated poverty, and these two things have always been recognized as pertaining to the monastic dedication.
The literary and theological relationship between these two passages in Matthew was noted back in the 4th century by St. John Chrysostom, On Repentance 6.3.12-13. While neither celibacy nor poverty is commanded to all Christians, their double consecration indicates a special calling extended to some Christians whose charismatic way of life will stand as a prophetic witness to the Church and to the world.
As a point of history, therefore, it is no exaggeration to say that this chapter of Matthew is one of the biblical texts most responsible for the institution of Christian monasticism. It was on hearing this text read in his parish church in Egypt back in the 3rd century that young Anthony, determined not to follow in the footsteps of the rich man, sold all his possessions and went into the desert to spend the rest of his life in celibacy, poverty, and prayer.
As for the man who declined the Lord’s invitation to be “perfect,” he left himself vulnerable, nonetheless, to a great deal of sadness (verse 22). His failure to accept the Lord’s challenge now leads to a series of teachings on the dangers of wealth (verses 23-29).
Tuesday, March 16
Matthew 19:23-30: Let alone attaining perfection, says Jesus, it is only with great difficulty that a rich man can even enter the Kingdom of Heaven (verse 23). Thus begins this section of Matthew (verses 23-30), paralleled in Mark 10:23-31 and Luke 18:24-30.
Over the centuries of Old Testament history we can discern a deep transformation in Israel’s thinking about wealth. The ancient Wisdom tradition had associated the accumulation of wealth with the virtuous life, as we see in Proverbs. That earlier literature, while not unaware of the spiritual dangers associated with wealth, had spent little space expounding on those dangers. It was Israel’s prophetic voice, rather, beginning with Elijah’s denunciation of Ahab in the 9th century, that began to elaborate the theme of the dangers posed by too much preoccupation with wealth. This was a major theme, of course, in the great social prophets of the 8th century. Gradually it found its way more explicitly in the Wisdom literature as well, Sirach 31:3-5 being one of its more eloquent expressions. Jesus’ approach to the subject in the present text is of a piece with what we find in Sirach.
Matthew omits the initial wonderment of the disciples mentioned by Mark (10:24), but he does include the Lord’s elaboration of the theme in the hyperbole of the camel and the eye of the needle.
As an image of “great difficulty,” this seems an unlikely hyperbole. It strikes the reader, rather, as a simple metaphor for impossibility. Indeed, there is a clear parallel to it in rabbinical literature, which speaks of the impossibility of passing an elephant through the eye of a needle (Babylonian Talmud, Berakoth 55b). Does Jesus mean, then, “”very difficult” or “utterly inconceivable”?
Since there appear to be no circumstances in which it is humanly possible for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, various fanciful interpretations have been advanced to explain away the toughness of the text. One of these, manifestly invented by someone who had no idea what he was talking about, refers to a small gate in the wall of Jerusalem. There is not the faintest evidence of such a gate.
On the other hand, since the Lord’s hyperbole contains a bit of metaphor-mixing, others have tried their hand at “correcting” Him. After all, why would anyone try to pass a camel, to say nothing of an elephant, through the eye of a needle? What purpose would it serve? You can’t sew with an elephant. It was apparently to address this difficulty that a tenth century copyist devised a very slight textual change in Luke’s version of the parable. He altered kamelos (camel) to kamilos (rope). A rope, after all, has an obvious affinity to a thread, whereas camel clearly does not.
This reading of “rope” for “camel,” first found in a manuscript penned in A.D. 949 and copied into a few other manuscripts, is rather clever, even ingenious, but the reading is too late to be taken seriously. One should be very cautious about biblical interpretations, much less biblical readings, that don’t appear in the first thousand years of Christian history!
What, then, about the impossibility implied in the Lord’s saying? The subsequent verse, in fact, confirms it. Yes, says Jesus, the salvation of the rich man is humanly impossible. This does not mean, however, that there is an impossibility on God’s side. God can pass a camel through the eye of the needle (verse 26). Let the rich man take care, however. Let him reflect that he is asking God fo
r a miracle.
This metaphor of the camel and the needle, therefore, is something of a parallel with the moving of mountains. Both parables have to do with the power of faith in the God. Salvation is ever a gift of God, not a human achievement.
Peter’s response to this teaching (verse 27) may seem somewhat to exaggerate the size of his own abnegation. Just how successful was the fishing business that he gave up. After all, every time he catches a fish in the New Testament, the event is regarded as a miracle. “Giving up everything” in Peter’s case may not appear, at first, to involve all that much.
Looks are deceptive, however. Peter’s commitment to our Lord would eventually lead him to witness the martyrdom of his wife (cf. Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 7.11.63) and then be crucified upside down on Vatican Hill (cf. Tertullian, Scorpiace 15.3).
Moreover, the Lord Himself honored what Peter had to say, and He promised to reward Peter’s self-sacrifice (verse28). He extends this promise to all the Twelve.
This is an important text in the ecclesiology of Matthew. The Apostles here—the institutional Twelve—become the new patriarchs, as it were, of the People of God. Their foundational role in the Church was so important that the Church took care to preserve even the exact number after the defection of Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:15-26).
The Lord’s promise of recompense is then extended to all those who, in imitation of the Twelve, would devote their lives to the closer following of Christ and the ministry of the Gospel along the road of self-abnegation (verse 29). These too will attain eternal life, the quest about which the rich man recently inquired (verse 16).
More than Mark, Matthew emphasizes the rewards of the world to come, omitting Mark’s inclusion of the rewards promised during the present age (cf. Mark 10:30).
The final verse in this chapter (verse 30), which is easily detachable from the present context, is apparently placed here because it prolongs the theme of reversal found in the previous verse—as the poor become rich, so the last become first, and the first last. This theme of reversal, in fact, appears to account for Matthew’s insertion of the next parable at this point. In that parable, as we shall see, the theme of reversal appears again (20:8).
Wednesday, March 17
Matthew 20:1-16: The parable about the day-workers is probably found in this place because it does tell a narrative about the last called being the first paid, thus illustrating, as it were, the final verse of Chapter 19: “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” The parable ends with the repetition of the theme of reversal (verse 16).
It is obvious, nonetheless, that this parable, found only in Matthew, is easily separable from that verse, which touches only one aspect of the parable—namely, the reversed order in which the payment to the workers is made. In fact, the parable itself is just as comprehensible without that theme.
The parable of the day workers was doubtless remembered among the early Christian because it did, in fact, address one of their early theological questions—How to regard the Gentiles who were “late-comers” to the Church. Those who earliest arrive at the field are all given a work contract, which may be interpreted as God’s established covenant with His people. Those that come last, however, work without a contract; that is to say, they have been promised nothing specific. They are outside the ancient covenant (Ephesians 2:12).
But God’s generosity rewards them anyway, and this parable is more descriptive of the Owner of the vineyard than of the workers. The Owner, of course, is God, who is described as merciful and generous with those who work for Him, as well as firm with those who contemn His generosity. The vineyard is, of course, the People of God (cf. Isaiah 5:1-7; Jeremiah 12:10).
The grumblers, who are reprimanded at the end of the parable, are not rebuked for dissatisfaction with what they received, but for their dissatisfaction with what the other people received. These grumblers may also become the enemies who have already commenced plotting against the Son of the field’s Owner (21:33-46).
The workers themselves are day laborers, the sort especially needed at the harvest. This feature suggests the eschatological import of the story. These are the “last times,” and everything is settled “in the evening” (verse 8).
Thursday, March 18
Matthew 21:28-32: This contrasting story of two brothers is of a kind with which the Bible abounds. We think, for instance, of the contrast between Ishmael and Isaac, or between Esau and Jacob. Indeed, the special place of this motif in Holy Scripture is indicated by the contrast between Cain and Abel near the beginning of it.
Likewise, this was not the only occasion on which Jesus contrasted two brothers. A better-known instance is found in Luke 15:11-32.
Before examining the present parable in Matthew, we do well to reflect the more general significance of these biblical stories of fraternal contrast. Aside from the sense conveyed by any one of them, is there a more universally applicable message common to all of them?
There appears to be. In each such story the two brothers are raised in the same family. They grow up in more or less identical conditions, subject to the same influences, or, as modern behavioral scientists like to say, in the same environment. Neither has a “home court advantage” over the other. Yet, in each instance the two brothers turn out very differently from one another.
This repeated contrast tends to foster a general impression: namely, that the behavior of human beings is not determined—is not fixed—by either nature or nurture. It is determined, rather, by personal choices that each man makes. Men born of the same parents and raised in the same home can grow up very differently from one another, a fact illustrating the truth that men make their own decisions, for good or ill, and set the course for their own destiny.
That is to say, the Bible gives no support to the notion that the fate of human beings is determined by the circumstances of their birth or upbringing. The Bible does not countenance the thesis that human beings are no more than the sum total of the influences brought to bear upon them. A human being becomes, rather, what he makes himself to be, and this takes place through his choices.
Moreover, the truth of this assertion is compatible with the burden of the present parable, in which each son makes a personal choice of obedience or disobedience, repentance or hardness of heart.
Jesus begins by inviting reflection on what He is about to say: “How does it seem to you? — Ti de hymin dokei?” The first son in the story “talks a good game.” He assents to the father’s instruction, but he fails to comply. The second son resists and rebels, but he obeys after thinking the matter over more carefully. The answer about which is the obedient son is not lost on Jesus’ listeners (verse 31).
Jesus goes on to apply this lesson to His current situation. These Jewish leaders have already shown their hand by their unwillingness to commit themselves with respect to John the Baptist. Now Jesus brings John the Baptist back into the picture. Sinners—those who have declared that they will not obey—have repented at the preaching of John, whereas the Law-observing Jewish leaders, who proclaimed themselves obedient, have failed to repent (verse 32; Luke 7:29-30). Which group is truly obedient to the Father? This parable was a powerful accusation against the Lord’s enemies, the men currently plotting to murder Him.
The two classes represented in the second son—the tax collectors and the whores—were closely associated with the Romans, whose army occupied the Holy Land at that time. The taxes were collected for the Roman government, and the whores sold their serv
ices to the Roman soldiers. Both groups, because they repented at the preaching of John the Baptist, were preferable to the Lord’s enemies, who were plotting His murder.
Obedience to the father is expressed as doing his will (epoiesen to thelema tou patros). This expression, of course, ties the parable to the central petition of the Lord’s Prayer (6:10). It also ties it to the Lord’s imminent Passion (26:39,42).
A derived understanding of this text, common among the Church Fathers, makes the first son refer to disobedient, unrepentant Israel, and the second son refer to the repentant Gentiles, who replaced them in the vineyard. This understanding of the parable is entirely consonant with the meaning that it bears in the context of Jesus’ own life. It may also have been the understanding of the story during the pre-scriptural period of its oral transmission. It may likewise have been in the mind of Matthew himself. Such an interpretation of this parable fits well, for example, with the contrast that Matthew makes between the Gentile Magi and the murderous leaders of Israel at the beginning of the story, and also with the contrast that he draws between the Gentile wife of Pilate and the Jewish leaders somewhat later in the account of the Lord’s Passion.
Certain discrepancies slipped into the manuscript traditions about which son ended up doing the father’s will and which son did not. Some manuscripts ascribe obedience to the elder son, and some (those that I have followed) to the younger. I suspect this variation arose when some copyists attempted to smooth over the seemingly awkward transition to the parable’s interpretation, in which the disobedient did not repent, whereas the obedient repented immediately (verse 32). This would not be the only time a biblical copyist tried to improve on our Lord’s rhetorical style.
Friday, March 19
Matthew 22:15-22: From a purely material perspective, this series of conflict stories, all of them placed during the final week of our Lord’s earthly life, is nearly identical in the three Synoptic Gospels. This fact offers strong testimony that the final chapters in these three Gospels reflect the preaching of the early Church, which apparently knew a standard narrative structure respecting the last week of Jesus’ life on earth.
Matthew follows this structure. In this series of conflict stories he has already begun to introduce those persons who will play an active hand in the drama of the Crucifixion. Already he has introduced the chief priests, the elders, and the Pharisees (21:23,45). Now he introduces the Pharisees again, the Herodians, and the Roman government, the latter symbolized in the coin of taxation.
In the story that follows this one he will introduce the Sadducees, the party of the priesthood (verse 23). Throughout these stories, then, Matthew is bringing back once again that confluence of enemies that were intent on killing “the King of the Jews” at the beginning of this Gospel (2:3-4).
The evil intent of the Pharisees’ question is noted at the beginning of the story (verse 15). This question is part of a “plot” (symboulion). His enemies want to “trap” Jesus (padigevo, a verb that appears only here in the New Testament). Pharisees and Herodians have no use for one another, but their common hatred of Jesus unites their efforts to spring a trap on Him.
This conspiracy of God’s enemies made a deep impression on the early Christians. Indeed, they saw it as the fulfillment of a prophecy in Psalm 2 (cf. Acts 4:23-30).
The Lord’s enemies commence with manifest flattery, evidently to put Jesus off His guard before springing their loaded question (verse 16). All three of the Synoptics mention this detail.
The payment of the head tax to the Roman government was a source of resentment and occasional rebellion among the Jews, both because it was a sign of their subjection to Rome and because they disliked handling the graven image of the emperor on the coin. To this question, then, either a yes or no answer could provide the basis for a political accusation against Jesus—or at least could gain Him new enemies. If Jesus forbade the paying of this tax, He would offend the Herodians. If He approved of it, He would further offend the Pharisees. Either way, He would give offense.
Reading their hearts (verse 18; 9:4) and reprimanding their hypocrisy, the Lord obliges them to produce the coin in question, thereby making it clear that they all do, in fact, have the coin and do pay the tax (verse 19).
That point established, He then obliged them to identify the head and name on the coin, namely, Tiberius Caesar (A.D. 14-37). Obviously the coin belonged to the emperor, so they could continue doing what they have always done—pay the tax. Caesar minted and distributed the coin. It was his.
Separated from its literary context, this story answers a practical question for Christians, and it has always served that purpose. Considered thus, it is consonant with the general teaching about taxation that we find elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. Romans 13:7; 1 Peter 2:13-19).
But then Jesus goes on. The concern of Jesus, however, is not identical with that of His enemies. He is not concerned about what is owed to Caesar, but what is owed to God. This, too, must be paid, and Jesus is about to pay it. Rendering unto God the things of God refers to our Lord’s approaching sufferings and death. Thus, what began as a mundane political question is transformed into a theological matter of great moment, leaving them all amazed (verse 22).
It is important, however, to keep this story in the context where the Gospels place it, the context of the Lord’s impending death. The question posed to Jesus is not a theoretical question. Indeed, it is not even a practical question. It is a loaded question—a question with an evil ulterior motive. It is a sword aimed at the Lord’s life.
And this is the sense in which we should understand Jesus’ response. Understood in this way, the Lord’s directive is full of irony. He tells His enemies to give back to God that which belongs to Him. And, in context, just what is that? It is Jesus Himself, whose life they will steal, and in their act of murder that which belongs to God will be rendered unto God.