“Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.” These words of Jesus from this week’s lectionary readings in Matthew 25:15-23, have become a sort of proverb both in the secular and religious worlds, and those who know little of scripture may still have heard “Render unto Caesar.” Yet, digging beneath the surface of this short encounter helps uncover some of the deeper currents in the exchange.
For me it’s an interesting combination of people that approach Jesus and Matthew tells us that the Pharisees come together with the Herodians. The Pharisees did not want to give money to their pagan oppressors and so were opposed to paying taxes to Rome. On the other hand, King Herod’s position of power came courtesy of the Romans, so even though the taxes were widely considered to be oppressive, the Herodians had a vested interest in keeping the Roman taxes paid. Therefore, the Pharisees and the Herodians each reflected one of the horns of the dilemma in the trap which the question to Jesus set out enmesh him in.
So, we have then the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?” The reference is to Jewish Law, which is also called the Law of Moses. Clearly, it was lawful to pay the tax by Rome’s standards; the question was whether it was proper for the Hebrew people to do so.
On the surface it would
seem that Jesus has been presented with a question with no way out. He can’t
speak against the tax, for that would anger the Herodians and lead to a charge
of treason against Rome. He could not speak in favour of the tax without
alienating most of the crowds that followed him. So, what did he do? Well, Jesus
asks for one of the coins used in paying the tax. And as he does this, he
begins to set up his own trap that will prove at least one of the questioners
to be a hypocrite. The coin used for the tax was a silver Denarius with the
image of Caesar on one side, and the image of a woman named Pax or personified
peace on the other. Now such coins were against Jewish Law, which prohibited
graven images being used or touched.
When Jesus asks for a Denarius, one is quickly located and handed to him. Jesus then asks the question that everyone in Israel could have answered without a coin in hand. In our reading for this week the New Revised Standard Version, translation states, “Whose head is this and whose title?” However, it is probably better to use the translation “likeness,” instead of title. When they answer Jesus’ question, saying that the image and likeness are “Caesar’s,” Jesus replies that they are to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. Give Caesar back those things that are Caesar’s. It is his coin anyway, who cares if you give Caesar back his coin for the tax?
Then Jesus gives the most amazing line of this short encounter when he continues by saying that we are to “give back to God the things that are God’s.” It leaves everyone calculating what exactly is God’s that we are supposed to give back. And in case you were wondering, the clue was the word “icon” or “image” and the word “likeness.”
The principle really is this: Just as the coin has Caesar’s icon on it, so it is Caesar’s, we who believe in the one God believe we are made in the image and likeness of God, so we are God’s. Jesus affirmed the tax while making it all but irrelevant. He then implies that, though we do owe the state, there are limits to what we owe. Yet, Jesus places no limits regarding what we owe to God. Jesus is very clear that everything you have and everything you are is God’s already.
While this would certainly apply to the money you make, the formula is not that you give 100 percent of your income to God, for God knows you need the money for the necessities of life. The teaching is that once you have given God some of the money you earn, don’t feel that you have bought off an obligation. God wants to share in some of your time and energy, so the 100 percent formula relates to your calendar as well as your wallet.
The point is that you have been made in the image and likeness of God. God loves you. God keeps your picture in the divine wallet and on the heavenly refrigerator. Jesus did not care about the tax, for his real concern was that you live into the image and likeness of the God who lovingly created you.
You begin to live into the image and likeness of God by conforming your life to be more like Jesus’ life.
To live more fully into that image and likeness of God that is in you, give back your heart to God – for it is God’s anyway. In answer to the question, “What are the things that are God’s which we are to give back to God?” the answer is, “You.”