Look at coins from Britain, Canada, and some other Commonwealth countries, and you will see on one side a portrait of the British sovereign surrounded by an inscription. This design reflects the coinage of imperial Rome. The portrait then was that of the emperor. The inscription, in Latin abbreviation, included the emperorâs name and his titles. The coins of the Roman Empire circulated over a vast area populated by people of many races and languages. The empire included Judea and Galilee, troublesome territories at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea that were never docile in their subservience to Rome.
In the days of imperial Rome, back before photography and television and modern travel, coins and sculpture were the only ways that most of the residents of the empire had to see what their emperor looked like. These coins also played an essential role in the empireâs sophisticated economy. They were essential to trade and taxation.
And so the stage is set for that Gospel drama where Jesus stymies his opponents by making reference to the Roman coin he holds in his hand.
Two groups are out to get Jesus. First, we have the Pharisees, devout Jews scrupulous in their observance of Godâs law as they understood it. This is probably the religious movement with which Jesus felt the greatest connection. He may have been viewed, at least initially, as a Phariseeâalthough an eccentric one. So there is special irony in certain other Pharisees plotting to entrap him.
The other group is the Herodians, Jews who support the local puppet ruler, Herod Antipas, or the entire family to which he belongs. Little is known about the Herodians as a group, except that Herod and his family were unpopular with the people, and so their supporters must have been unpopular as well.
The Herodians were probably unpopular because they were seen as Roman collaborators. On the other hand, the Pharisees were a grassroots movement generally respected by the people. Pharisees and Herodians differed on several issues, such as whether or not the Jews should pay taxes to the occupying power. It is remarkable, therefore, to witness representatives of these opposite social forces working together. Evidently both groups felt threatened by the rabbi from Nazareth.
And so they approached Jesus over one of the hot issues of the time. Their language is obsequious to the point of sounding suspicious. Listen to them try to butter him up! âTeacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.â
Such fair words, such foul intentions! True, Jesus does not regard people with partiality; he pays no attention to a personâs status; he treats everyone with the same respectâno matter who they are. But this is his crime in their eyes! He refuses to kowtow to any of these partisans and their narrow views of reality. It is for this reason that they are doing all they can to entrap him and destroy him.
After so sickly-sweet an introduction, they put forth their question: Is it lawful or not to pay taxes to the emperor?
They intend to force Jesus to side with one group or another: either with the revolutionaries working to drive out the Romans, or with the collaborators who profit from the occupation. If he disallows payment, he leaves himself open to charges of sedition. If he encourages payment, he loses credibility and the peopleâs respect.
Jesus recognizes their malice immediately and challenges them. âWhy are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?â The Devil had tested Jesus during his forty-day fast in the wilderness. Now it is people who attempt to entrap him. He calls them what they are: hypocrites. What he points to is not mere pretense, but evil. They have put themselves opposite to the purposes of God.
Jesus then asks to see the coin used to pay the tax. He is handed a denarius. A denarius is a silver coin, a dayâs wages for an ordinary laborer. The particular denarius shown to Jesus probably depicted the reigning emperor, Tiberius. One type of denarius of this emperor is extremely common, and has been found in every part of what was once the Roman Empire. The Latin inscription on this coin is translated as follows: âTiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus and Augustus.â [John Yonge Akerman, âNumismatic Illustrations of the New Testamentâ (Chicago, Argonaut, Inc. Publishers, 1966), p.11.] The Romans often claimed divinity for their emperors. Here, the current one, Tiberius, is depicted as heir to his divine predecessor. The Romans gloried in these titles; the Jews were scandalized by them.
Jesus now asks what seems an unnecessary question. âWhose head is this, and whose title?â The answer is simple: the emperorâs.
Jesus then gives his famous response. He lifts the tax controversy to a different level, well above the deadlock between revolutionary and collaborator. âGive to the emperor the things that are the emperorâs.â In other words, you can pay him this coin and others like it, for after all, his name and portrait appear on them. He has a just claim to property of this kind.
âAnd give to God the things that are Godâsâ What belongs to God? Consider! If the emperor claims a coin that bears his image, then certainly God claims whatever bears his image. But what bears the image of God? But Pharisees and Herodians are familiar with the Scriptures. They know the Genesis account of how God makes humanity in the divine image.
It is right to pay the emperor taxes using coins with his image. But it is an even greater responsibility to give God what bears his image, namely oneself.
So Jesus shifts the encounter from an attempt to entrap him in a wearisome controversy to an unavoidable recognition, on the part of each person present, that we are to return our lives to God. Each one is made in the divine image. Each one owes God final and complete loyalty.
Tiberius may claim to be the son of divine Augustus. The truth is that each human is the child of the true King, Israelâs God. Thunderstruck by this inescapable recognition, Herodians and Pharisees slip away as quietly as they can, we hope to a better life.
This drama does not answer all questions about what it means to be both a citizen in society and a Christian. It does not resolve every dilemma about obedience and taxation and resistance. But it does make clear what moral inquiry must take first place: Do I give myself to God? Am I in right relationship to God?
If the answer to these last two questions is âyes,â then perhaps I can live justly in my other relationships, complex and challenging though they may be. If the answer is âno,â if I have somehow defrauded God, then everything else in my life will be out of line, and whatever my good intentions, I cannot live justly with others.
Our humanity is constituted so that unless I do right by my most important relationship, I cannot do right by the rest. But if that most important relationship is somehow healed and made whole, repaired by the one who established it, then my other relationships have a hope of being set right as well.
Why are we here today? Out of belief that Jesus, at the cost of his life and by the power of his resurrection, sets right our primary relationship, our connection with God, and that thereby we have the hope of living justly in our other relationships as well.
Let us pray in the name of the One who has made us in the divine image and called us to new and eternal life: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.