And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him. — Mark 12:13–17 ESV
Here in Mark we see Jesus facing another unannounced pop-quiz. This was the kind of thing that Jesus might as well get used to. This particular question was a concoction of some Pharisees and Herodians, strange bedfellows to be sure. But if the enemy of my enemy is my friend, then I suppose stranger things have happened.
Now, this isn’t the sort of quiz you get in private. Because the answer, whatever it is, needs witnesses. Being the cunning sort, the Pharisees and Herodians have worked out that most any answer to this question was bound to piss-off somebody. Of course, if they could choose who ends up pissed-off, they would probably prefer the Romans, given that there were few things the Romans cared about more than their taxes. But should paying taxes be the preferred alternative, there were plenty or Zealots or Nationalists that could be stirred up. They were probably feeling pretty good about their little question and no doubt had follow-up questions in mind to dig the hole a little deeper depending on Jesus’ answer.
To spring the trap, they begin with a compliment. After all, it’s just good style to put the animal at ease before you pull out the knife. They casually mention that Jesus doesn’t seem to give a hoot what people think of his teachings, which they’re hoping was especially true with respect to those Romans.
Truthfully, this wasn’t a difficult plot to see through. In those days, public answers to political questions could easily lead to a public funeral. Jesus mentions that their subterfuge was pathetic and says, “Why put me to the test?” The answer to that was also a bit obvious, but the question was rhetorical and Jesus immediately asks that they bring him a coin. The Pharisees and Herodians were happy to oblige, undoubtedly hoping they were about to hear an anti-tax speech.
Now, the Romans, like others before and since, had worked out long ago that conquering a nation was a lot more difficult than occupying one, and that there would never be enough soldiers to prevent an organized local uprising. So, efficient use of troops required that should anyone, anywhere, resist Roman occupation, everyone, both the guilty and the innocent within arm’s reach would die the most horrible death they could imagine. And when it came to horrible death, Roman’s had no lack of imagination. For the occupied, failure to prevent an uprising was, in fact, a death sentence.
So, a public anti-tax speech was a bit like striking matches to find a gas leak. Of course, that isn’t what happened. Jesus asks someone to tell him whose picture is on the coin. “Why Caesar’s”, someone says. Jesus’ reply then throws them off their game. In fact, they just call a time-out and head back to the huddle because they don’t have a play to call. If Jesus would have just refused to answer, which would have been the prudent thing to do, at least they could have called him a coward. Instead Jesus replies, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
That coin was, of course, a symbol of value. That value, determined not by Caesar, but by the market, could be exchanged in place of other things of value. Jesus simply says, if it belongs to Caesar, then return it to him. What’s striking to me is the implication that the coin doesn’t belong to God. In fact, the way you can tell that it doesn’t belong to God is that it doesn’t have God’s image on it. Caesar has taken the trouble of stamping his picture on his stuff, but what about things that belong to God?
It just so happens that God has stamped his image on some stuff, namely us. Not just those Sunday go-to-church sort of folks… but all of us. In Genesis we read:
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. — Genesis 1:27 ESV
Naturally, for centuries theologians have puzzled over precisely what that tells us about God, not to mention, us males and females.
For many of us, that image might be less obvious than others. But like the coin, it’s value isn’t a function of it’s shine or age or even how closely the picture resembles Caesar. Also like the coin, our value is market driven and a function of how much God might be willing to trade in exchange for us. The analogy God gives us is comparable to what a father might trade in exchange for a beloved son, his only son. This is so we might comprehend that our value is higher to God than the value we might place on our neighbors or even… ourselves.
We speculate wildly about what it means to have God’s image imprinted on us. In typical fashion we like to make comparisons with other things God has created and point out how obvious it is to us that we’re superior. Once we do that, we begin to differentiate between males and females and racial and cultural distinctions that we reason must also make a difference to an intelligent God.
Truth is, we don’t know what it means to have God’s image stamped on us. Any rational response to the value God places on us should leave us grateful and joyful. Instead, we squabble over distinctions that Jesus repeatedly tells us God finds repugnant. We accuse the Father of wrongdoing by throwing a party for the return of the prodigal (Luke 15:25–32). We gather stones to throw at those who’s sin is less obvious than our own (Matthew 7:3–5). Ultimately, this argument leads once again to the killing of Cain by Able in a fit of misplaced jealously (Genesis 4:3–8).
But, however marred, scratched, or covered in filth, that coin remains redeemable by a God who recognizes his image stamped on us in spite of all we’ve done to erase it. He will still exchange his only son for it and should we return home he will still run out to greet us and throw us a party.
Personally, my coin’s image is a mess. Sometimes I swear it more closely resembles Caesar than God. Truth be told, my coin is double-sided. I can only rely on a loving God to be able to recognize as his own in what is clearly compromised and obscured by me. I remain grateful and yes, however unworthy, I will not refuse the invitation to join his party.