Who Bears the Image of God?
I kind of feel bad for the Pharisees. On the one hand, the Pharisees were considered to be the voice of the people. Unlike the Sadducees, who controlled the Temple and made up the aristocracy, the Pharisees could come from among the common people. You didn’t have to have money to be a Pharisee, just a deep devotion to study and obedience to Torah. On the other hand, the Pharisees were the preferred party of Rome. Rome and the Herodian dynasty (i.e. Herod’s family) had conflicts with the Sadducees over power, and so they supported their rivals the Pharisees. Rome didn’t care very much about intra-Judean politics, they just wanted a stable tax base and good access to olive oil, wine, and pickled fish.
I feel bad for the Pharisees because they had to walk a very careful line. Lean too far towards what the people want, and lose their Roman support. Lean too far in support of Rome, and the people will disregard them. It makes you feel bad for them, because in everything they do, they have to calculate how it will look to everyone else. They have to carefully watch everything they say to make sure that they don’t destroy their credibility. That’s hard work. And it’s stressful.
But it’s what you have to do if you want to maintain any sort of power in this world. Power, influence, reputation, and money all require maintenance. You can’t just have them. You have to work to maintain them. If you don’t actively take steps to protect them, they dissipate. We saw this in the Weinstein scandal that has been in the news for the past few weeks. Such abuse happened (and continues to happen) because people believed that if they spoke up they would lose precious opportunities and influence. They didn’t want to put their positions at risk. They were working to maintain them. And the parade of actresses who spoke up and never got a shot is proof that they were right.
It’s not just famous people who have this problem. All of us do. Every one has some influence or reputation or deposits in the bank of other people’s trust. We’ve all reconsidered a Facebook post because it might offend someone, or kept quiet at a soccer game or a work function when other people were speaking unfaithfully. We work hard to protect our reputations under the assumption that someday we put those reputations on the line for something important. But for most of us, someday never comes, and we die respected by all our peers but unsure if we could have made more of a difference. This is at the heart of the critique in Martin Luther King’s letter from a Birmingham jail. King said he was gravely disappointed in the white moderate. They said they agreed on issues of inequality, but were unwilling to take any hit to their reputations in order to work for it.
This is what’s going on for these Pharisees and Herodians who came to Jesus asking about taxes. They had worked hard to develop a reputation as devoted scholars and supporters of the populace. And over the years, with the support of Herod they had made themselves into the dominant force on the Sanhedrin, finally able to steer the nation in a righteous direction. Only once they get their way they discover they aren’t steering at all, they’re being steered, by their desire to maintain the power and influence they worked so hard to get. They weren’t about to throw it all away on some idealistic crusade. That’s how you get yourself crucified.
So now the Pharisees have to spend their time worrying about what the press will think, the optics of a situation, and their polling numbers. And if someone else arises who seems to have the ear of the people, they have to do something about it or risk being displaced. The growing popularity of Jesus is a threat to the Pharisees, because they’re afraid they will look bad by comparison. There must be a German word for the feeling of jealousy and embarrassment when everybody seems to have everything together but you don’t. I think it might be “facebook.” And so they set up a trap for Jesus. It is the perfect trap (for a Pharisee). It places Jesus in the exact situation that the Pharisees struggled with the most. It makes him choose between the answer favored by the people and the answer favored by the Romans. The trap is in the form of the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
Now the Pharisees know exactly the shape of this trap, and it is intended more to discredit Jesus than it is to try to learn or get a valuable answer. Because for the Pharisees there are only two answers to the question, and neither is a good answer. Either you tell everyone to pay their taxes to the pagan emperor who is trying to force you to worship him to pay for the armies that beat you down. Or you tell them not to pay their taxes, advocating rebellion, which will certainly provoke the wrath of the Romans and most likely get some people killed. The Romans were prickly about rebellions, on account of their being so many.
The point isn’t to gain a better understanding of the law, or a better understanding of Jesus’ theory of the relationship between church and state. The point was to embarrass Jesus in front of a lot of people, because that would make him look bad and them look good. That they sent students to ask the question was a hedge. If Jesus did somehow turn the question around, at least their reputations wouldn’t take so much of a hit.
So they ask their question, and in turn, Jesus makes a request. Bring me the coin used to pay the tax. And so they bring up a denarius. A denarius is a coin worth about one day’s wages. So they show him a denarius. And Jesus says, “Whose likeness, whose image is on the coin?
You might not know it, but at this moment, Jesus has already turned the trap on them. You remember the commandment, from the famous 10 commandments, thou shalt not have any graven images? At the time, that was understood to apply to coins, and specifically that no graven image of any living thing(people, animals, etc) would be put on a coin. So in Judea, coins were struck without the head of the emperor, but with traditional Jewish imagery, like a menorah, or cornucopias, or palm trees. In later years when Judea’s rulers ruled both Judea and other provinces, they occasionally struck coins with an image. But they always struck separate coins for Judea with no graven images. Of course, it was a cosmopolitan world, coins came in from other cities. It’s not that they weren’t available. But most devout Jews avoided coins with graven images, and would have been embarrassed to be caught with one. That would mean you had been carrying an idol with you all day.
So when Jesus asks the Pharisees, “Whose image is on that coin?” and they say Caesar’s, they have confirmed their own hypocrisy. They claim to be the most devout in following the law, but they are carrying a graven image around with them. They revealed themselves to be more interested in following Caesar’s laws than God’s law. They set a trap for Jesus and found themselves trapped instead.
The rest of Jesus’ answer breaks the mold again. Jesus doesn’t take the bait and give an opinion on tax law. He says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God, what is God’s.” It doesn’t so much answer the question as it does bring up a new, much bigger question: What is Caesar’s? What is God’s?
This is a question that every single one of us will have to answer at some point in our lives. It may be in a big important decision that we make about our future. It may be in a series of small decisions that we only look back on later and see how much they shaped our lives. But in the messy world we live in, there is always conflict between what will serve the interests of maintaining our own stockpiles of goodwill, reputation, and money. I’m not going to pretend to answer that question for you. I struggle with it too much myself to be comfortable telling anyone else what’s right or wrong for them.
But I do want to share something I discovered as I was studying this passage this past week. When Jesus asks, “Whose image is on the coin?” that word for image is the Greek word eikon, which means a likeness or an image. It’s the same word that comes up in Genesis 1:26:
Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
Jesus implies that the fact that Caesar’s image is on the coin means that the coin belongs to Caesar. What does it mean that God’s image is on each and every one of us? Even Caesar himself.
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”