“Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (Matthew 22:17)
Consider, if you will, the Canadian 10-cent piece; or consider, even, the lowly nickel—or almost any other Canadian coin. You will see on one side a portrait of Queen Elizabeth, surrounded by the inscription, “D.G. Regina” (or “Dei Gratia Regina”), Latin for “By the Grace of God, Queen.”
This design mimics the coinage of imperial Rome in Jesus’ time. The portrait then was that of the emperor. The inscription, in Latin abbreviation, included the emperor’s name and his titles.
The coins of the Roman Empire circulated over a vast area populated by people of many races and languages. It was an empire which included Judea and Galilee—troublesome regions at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea; troublesome, because they 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 empire’s sophisticated economy. They were essential to trade and taxation.
And so the stage is set for the dramatic encounter in Matthew 22:15-22, where Jesus embarrasses his opponents by making reference to the Roman coin he holds in his hand.
Two quite disparate groups come gunning for Jesus. First, there are the Pharisees (or at least, a faction of them). They are devout Jews scrupulous in their observance of God’s law as they interpreted it. Then, there are the Herodians—Jews who support Herod Antipas—referred to most often as a Jewish King, but in reality nothing more than a Roman puppet.
Pharisees and Herodians differed on several issues, one of which was the question of whether to pay taxes to the occupying power. It is remarkable, therefore, to witness representatives of these opposing camps working together. Evidently, both groups feel threatened by the rabbi from Nazareth.
So they approach Jesus over one of the “hot-button” issues of the day. After a sickly-sweet overture (“Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth …”), they present their toxic question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
They hope to trick Jesus into siding with one group or another—either with the revolutionaries who are plotting to drive out the Romans, or with the collaborators who benefit from the occupation. If Jesus disallows payment, he leaves himself open to charges of sedition. If he encourages payment, he loses credibility and the people’s respect.
Jesus, however, is onto their game immediately, and challenges them: “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” Then he asks to see the coin used to pay the tax. He is handed a denarius—a silver coin about the size of a modern dime. The particular denarius shown to Jesus would have borne the likeness of the reigning emperor, Tiberius. It would also have had a Latin inscription, translated as follows: “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus.”
Remember, the Latin inscription on our modern coinage proclaims that Elizabeth is Queen “by the grace of God”; but the inscription on Roman coins claimed divinity for the emperor. If Caesar Augustus was a god, so is his son Tiberius, according to the Romans. Tiberius is depicted as heir to his divine predecessor. The Romans gloried in these titles; the Jews were scandalized by them.
Now Jesus asks what seems like an unnecessary question: “Whose head is this, and whose title?” The answer is simple: “The emperor’s.”
Jesus then gives his famous response. He lifts the tax controversy to a different level, well above the deadlock between revolutionary and collaborator. “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s.”
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.
“And give to God the things that are God’s.” 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 is it that bears the image of God?
Certainly, the Pharisees and the Herodians are familiar with the Scriptures. They remember the Genesis account: “So God created humankind in his image …” (GEN. 1:27)
They know that God has made humanity in his own 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, one’s own self. Even as the coin bears Caesar’s image—and so belongs to Caesar—we bear the image and likeness of God. And so, we belong to God. Jesus both affirmed the tax … and made it irrelevant. His meaning is clear: though we do owe the state, there are limits to what we owe. But he places no limits on what we owe to God. God calls us to be the embodiment of his Kingdom—the picture of it, if you will. The likeness of our Maker is supposed to be stamped upon us as indelibly as Caesar’s likeness was stamped upon that denarius.
Jesus refuses to become embroiled in a futile controversy. More than that, to each person present—and to us—he makes it clear that we must return our lives to God. Each one of us is made in the divine image. Each one of us owes final and complete loyalty to God. Tiberius may claim to be the son of divine Augustus—but the truth is that each human being is a child of the true King, Israel’s Lord. Thunderstruck by this realization, the Herodians and the Pharisees slip quietly away.
To be sure, this gospel drama does not answer all our questions about what it means to be—at one and the same time—citizens of earth and of heaven. It does not resolve every dilemma about obedience and taxation and resistance. But it does point out the sort of moral inquiry that must inform all of our difficult choices:
- Have I given myself—fully and completely—to God?
- Am I in right relationship to God?
If the answer to these two questions is “yes,” then I have a shot at making my other relationships work—complex and challenging though they may be. But if the answer is “no”—if I have cheated or shortchanged or forgotten my Creator—then everything else in my life will be out of whack, and whatever my good intentions, I will not be able to live justly or happily with others.
Our humanity is, after all, constituted in that way. Unless I do right by my relationship with God, I cannot do right by any of my other relationships. 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.
Fortunately, hope abounds for us! Why? Because “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
In Christ, humanity and divinity are reconciled. And the message of reconciliation has been entrusted to us. Friends, we are the coinage of heaven. Let’s spend our lives so that others may see—in us—the image and likeness of our Lord.