Matthew 22:15-22

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.

This isn’t just any tax. It’s the Imperial Tax, the one denarius a year that Jews had to pay the Romans to cover the cost of occupying their country. That’s right. They were paying their oppressors to, well, oppress them.

Not that everyone saw it this way. Those put in power by the Romans, represented in this passage by the Herodians, advocated supporting Roman “governance” of Israel. Nationalists opposed to Rome, probably comprising much of the crowd, found the tax incredibly offensive. And the religiously devout, represented by the disciples of the Pharisees, had to pay with a coin engraved with a picture of Caesar Tiberius and a proclamation of his divinity, forcing them to break the first two Commandments each and every time they paid the tax.

All of which made the topic of the Imperial Tax tremendously divisive and one’s opinion on it immediately revealing. Which is precisely the nature of the “trap” – if Jesus advocates paying the tax, his supporters in the crowd will turn on him, but if we condemns the tax, he puts himself in jeopardy with Roman officials.

Jesus not only evades their snare, but also entangles them in their own devices. “Who’s face is on the coin,” he asks. Eager to advance their plot, Jesus’ opponents forget that by procuring a coin they betray their own complicity in the Roman system. For those not paying attention, Jesus makes explicit their self-indictment by asking whose image and proclamation adorn the coin. “The Emperor’s,” they answer, assuring those in attendance that they know full well the face and blasphemous confession of divinity they carry.

All of which sharpens the bite of Jesus’ response: “give, therefore, to Caesar, the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And suddenly the tables are turned, as all in attendance confess that everything belongs to the holy One of Israel. With just a few words, Jesus reveals the truth about his would-be accusers and simultaneously calls them to a higher fidelity than they’d imagined.

I wonder if Jesus is doing the same to us? Not trying to trap us, of course, but rather inviting us to declare our allegiance. Perhaps the key issue in this exchange isn’t whose image is on the coin, but rather whose image is on us. In Genesis 1, God declares God’s intent in to create humanity in God’s own image. So while we feel that how we spend our money is our business an no one else’s, yet if we forget in whose image we have been made we may succumb to the temptation to believe that we are no more than the some total of our possessions and that our bank accounts tell a true story about our worth and value.

So…render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and what is God’s to God. Indeed!

Prayer: Dear God, remind us of our identity as your beloved children and as agents of your mercy in this world and empower us to live that identity everyday. In Jesus’ name, Amen.