Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, 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. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. — Matthew 22:15-22 (NRSV)
It is Advent, the first season of the official church year and the time when some Christians prepare for the coming of Christ at the feast we call Christmas. It is a time of expectation, of planning and getting ready. So why is there a seemingly very mundane passage about money and taxes? Surely that passage would be better suited to another time of year, say April? There are times we have to just take the readings as they come and this seems to be one of them.
The Pharisees are up to their tricks again, trying to trap Jesus into saying or doing something they can use to get rid of this troublesome itinerant. This time they bring him a silver coin, about the size of a dime although a bit thicker, and recognized as legal tender throughout the Roman empire. The question to Jesus was, was it legal to pay taxes required by Roman law to Caesar or not? It wasn’t that the denarius that they brought was so valuable; money never is unless you don’t have any. It was worth about a day’s wages for a worker on a large estate, the value of about 20 loaves of bread.
Jesus’ question was an interesting one, “Whose image is on this coin? And whose title?” Even the Jewish coins minted in Tyre (where the “official” Jewish coins of that time were struck) had the image of a Caesar (coins last a very long time) and his title, often with the inclusion of something like “son of the divine Augustus” added, making it even more odious to the Jews who used the coins. The coins used for the temple tax had this same image, despite the commandment against graven images. In the days of Jesus, and living in even a small far-away corner of the Roman Empire, you couldn’t get far from the image, likeness or rule of Caesar; Caesar’s taxes not only paid for the emperor’s upkeep in Rome along with the hierarchy that administered the work of the empire, but also soldiers in the provinces to provide security, upkeep of the roads that moved goods from place to place, public works and even the very bureaucracy from which at least one of Jesus’ followers came (Matthew, the tax collector). Even so, the denarius was not accepted in the temple; it had to be exchanged for “Jewish” money, the shekel or the half shekel, with the cost of the exchange (added on as a sort of banking fee), going into the pockets of the moneychanger. Things haven’t changed much, have they?
With the challenge of the Pharisees and Herodians (allegedly supporters of the local monarchy), Jesus faced one of the most common contests between two human beings of the time. A challenge would be offered and must be answered or there was a risk of loss of face and ultimately shame. The challenge always had to be public, and had to be answered publicly. The winner was the person who could provide a response to which the other had no reasonable answer. The Pharisees threw down the gauntlet, so to speak, and Jesus picked it up and threw it back at them. “Pay Caesar what is his.” What else could the Pharisees say? Jesus clearly won that challenge and the Pharisees publicly lost face. You had to be careful of your words and positions, in those days. One ill-conceived challenge could cost you more than you could gain by a sharp retort.
Since the Pharisees were a religious sect, Jesus’ “pay to God what is God’s” would be a direct challenge. The temple ran on money and it too had a taxation structure. A tithe was charged to support the priests, a head tax of 1/2 shekel that each male had to pay yearly, sacrificial items of animals or agricultural goods to present to God and finally dedicated goods (or children as in Samuel’s case) to fulfill vows. God wasn’t interested in coins although the temple where God was worshipped certainly needed it to keep operating. What is God’s, however, goes beyond sacrifices, head and temple taxes and dedicated goods; what is God’s is the human being, created in the image and likeness of God, and all that that human being is. What is God’s is that person’s devotion and attention to God’s rules which includes caring for others as well as themselves in addition to sacrificial offerings and support of God’s temple. It was very clever — Jesus is saying that the coin belongs to Caesar, but the people belong to God. How could the Pharisees make a come back after that kind of riposte?
Looking at it that way, it seems that using something material like money or possessions to establish the worth of a person isn’t what Jesus (or God) had in mind. Human beings were given the ultimate gift of being made in the image of God and as such that is how they should be seen, regardless of social status or possessions.
As one bearing the image and likeness of God, I need to learn to value myself by what I am, not what I have, and look at others with the same kind of lens. I also have to give back to God the value of what has been given to me, namely the good that I as a human being can do for my fellow humans and to the world God created. It’s a lot harder than simply putting in a dollar bill in an alms basin — or sending a check to the government once a year. It’s asking for everything, not just a part.
But then, I come back to the advent thought that Jesus came and gave all of himself. Maybe the reading is more apt than I first thought.