TEXT: Matthew 22:15-22
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Or—in the perhaps more familiar King James Version—Jesus says: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).
Church treasurers love this quotation, because it has spawned so many stewardship sermons! And I guess my message today is about stewardship … sort of. But probably not in the way most of you might expect.
Let’s do some digging—some exploration—in this passage from Matthew’s gospel. Beginning at verse 15 of chapter 22, we read: “Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians …”
This combination of people approaching Jesus is interesting, to say the least. The Pharisees and the Herodians—this is an unexpected alliance. The Pharisees, you understand, hated the idea of giving money to their Roman oppressors—and so they were completely opposed to paying taxes to the emperor. The Herodians, on the other hand … Well, Herod was a puppet king kept in power by the Romans! So the Herodians had a vested interest in making sure the emperor received his due.
Continuing through verse 17, we hear the question being asked: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” The reference is, of course, to Jewish Law—the Law of Moses. Obviously, it was by Roman standards perfectly lawful to pay the tax—in fact, it was obligatory. The question was about whether it was proper and moral for a Jew to pay the tax.
Now, you see the trap they’re trying to set, don’t you? They think they’ve left Jesus with an impossible choice. If he speaks against the tax, the Herodians will haul him into a Roman court on charges of treason. If he speaks in favour of the tax, he will alienate many in the crowds that follow him. But the Galilean rabbi is more cunning than his adversaries realize. He sets a kind of trap of his own.
“Show me the coin used for the tax,” he says.
Now, the coin used for the tax was a silver coin called a denarius. It had a picture of Caesar on one side, and—on the reverse—the image of a woman called “Pax.” She was a symbolic personage, kind of like the statue of Liberty. Except “Pax” was symbolic of peace. She was peace, personified. Anyway, since each denarius contained not one, but two, graven images, these coins offended against Jewish law.
Remember that incident where Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers and drove them out of the Temple? These moneychangers had a livelihood because—if you were going to do business in the Temple—you first had to exchange your pagan currency for special Temple coins. Carrying the image of Caesar into the Temple was a sacrilege. Even so, when Jesus asks for a denarius, one is quickly located. Jesus then asks the question that everyone in Israel could have answered without having a coin in hand. In the New Revised Standard Version, he says: “Whose head is this and whose title?”
But this is a case where the venerable old King James Version is a superior translation, as it has Jesus ask: “Whose is this image and superscription?”
The Greek word eikon (εἰκών)—which the NRSV renders as “head”—is better translated as “image.” When the Herodians and Pharisees answer Jesus’ question by saying that it is Caesar’s image on the coin, he tells them to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. It’s his coin anyway! So who cares if you give Caesar back his own coin for the tax?
Some feel this would be a better translation even than the King James: “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” And likewise, the other half of Jesus’ statement: “Give back to God what belongs to God.”
It’s kind of an amazing one-liner, really. It leaves everyone calculating just exactly what that might be. What is it that belongs to God, that we are supposed to give back to him?
In case you’re wondering, the clue lies in that word “eikon” or “image.” If I can imagine Jesus expounding on this point, I think he might refer us to chapter one of Genesis, beginning at verse 26: “And God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.’” It goes on to state, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
Think about that. Just as the denarius has Caesar’s eikon upon it—and therefore belongs to him—so do we belong to God because we bear his image and his likeness.
Jesus doesn’t so much affirm or condemn the tax, as he makes it irrelevant. He implies that, though we do owe something to the state, there are limits to what the state may claim. However, Jesus places no limits regarding what we owe to God.
Yes, this text is often used to talk about stewardship in terms of what you should give to the church. But this passage is not about tithing. According to Jesus, if giving 10 percent of our income is all we do, we fall 90 percent short of the mark—because, in truth, everything we have and everything we are already belongs to God.
Of course, I’m not telling you to give 100 percent of your income to God (sorry, church treasurers). The Lord knows you need money to purchase the necessities of life. But I think Jesus would tell us that, once we have given God some of the money we’ve earned, we should not feel that we have paid off an obligation. God wants a share of your time and energy, as well; so the “100 percent” formula pertains to your calendar as well as to your wallet.
What God wants is nothing less than to come and abide in your heart. The point is that God loves you. You have been made in the image and likeness of God—and God notices the family resemblance. As someone has said, “If the Lord has a refrigerator, your picture is on it!”
See, here is Jesus’ urgent concern: he wants you and I to live into the image and likeness of the God who lovingly created us.
We begin to live into the image and likeness of God by conforming our lives to be more like Jesus’ life. Giving back to God through the church certainly does matter. But merely giving money—to the church, or to the government, or to any good cause … Well, that’s only a small part of a big picture.
You catch a glimpse of the big picture, though, when you dare to ask: “What is it that belongs to God, which I am supposed to give back to him?” Because the real answer to that question is … “You.”