In today’s Gospel Jesus and the religious leaders in Jerusalem continue their tense exchange of questions and challenges.
Two important political groups in Jerusalem—the Pharisees and the Herodians—are ganging up on Jesus. The Herodians; were supporters of Herod, the King of Israel who was a Roman lackey so they were supporters of the Romans. Then there were the Pharisees, who, as religious purists, would object to paying taxes especially to a king, like Caesar, who claimed to be of divine lineage. At the same time, the crowds, were watching. They didn’t like either the Romans or their taxes, and they frequently showed their dislike by rioting. They would be very unhappy at any answer that seemed to approve of the taxes. Finally, there are the soldiers, who were watching, Romans who were paid by the taxes in question. They didn’t much like the crowds, who had a penchant for rioting and whose rioting they had to control.
So, this was no abstract debate. The intent of the question was to ensure that Jesus was either arrested for treason by the Romans, discredited as a false teacher by the Pharisees, or the Herodians, or lynched by the crowd as a traitor to his own people.
Jesus slipped out of the trap. He asked for a coin. It’s a special minting of the denarius. On the coin is marked, “Tiberius Caesar, majestic son of divine Augustus, High Priest”. Below these words, the image of the emperor is pressed into the metal. To any good Jew, the coin itself violated the commandments by claiming that Caesar had divine pretensions, by containing an image of this false god.
A big part of what Jesus said was simply “give the thing back.” It could belong to no one but Caesar; it could certainly not belong to anyone who worshiped the God of Israel. This answer avoided the trap, and it allowed that particular tax to be paid with that particular coin—not as an act of political submission, but as a sign of religious fidelity. It was a very specific, and very narrow answer that made it possible for Jesus to escape the trap.
The coin belonged to Caesar because it was stamped with Caesar’s image and marked with Caesar’s inscription. The coin was made by the emperor for the emperor’s purposes. All that is a pretty good claim to ownership—a claim that Jesus recognized, for that coin.
The next question that flows from Jesus’ words is: “What, then, belongs to God?” Well, what is made in the image of God? What is stamped in the likeness of God and created for God’s purposes?
The sanctity of human life is a core Christian doctrine that derives from the Genesis 1 account of humankind being created in the image of God. Humankind is the image or ikon which represents God: every human being regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, age, or state of health. This is the basis of the prohibition of murder in the Ten Commandments. The incarnation of Christ and his redemptive death affirms the extraordinary value He places on each human life. This is our central characteristic, what it is that makes us human beings, is that we are created in the image of God. And what’s more, at our baptism we are further marked, we are stamped, we are inscribed, with the sign of the cross. Our image and likeness, and what is written upon us, is that of God himself. To whom, then, do we belong?
This, the question of our ultimate loyalty and our deepest allegiances, is what Jesus is really talking about. The Lord is saying simply that what belongs to God is nothing other than we ourselves. There is no higher claim and there can be no higher claim. Our lives are God’s, and all that we do is to be marked by that conviction. All competing claims for our lives and for our allegiance are to be evaluated and understood in the light of whose we are, and whose image we bear.
Give to God what is God’s—for God owns that which he has made in his image, and he is Lord over that which bears his inscription. It is that image, in ourselves and in others, that leads to concrete imperatives for justice, compassion, and righteousness. It is that image that both claims our allegiance and directs our efforts. It is God’s image that gives ultimate value and meaning to what we do. It is that image, and no other, we owe God everything. We owe Him our very lives—all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, we are called to be a light to the world working in faith, and in love, enduring in hope, as today’s Epistle teaches.
Certainly, give to Caesar the things that are Caesars—but give to God the things that are God’s. Don’t be everything; don’t have or hoard everything. Live your life mirroring how God created life: as a gift for the giving. That truth will transform us, allowing us to become agents of hope even in the darkest of times.