Picture the scene. It’s the week before Passover in Jerusalem. Tensions are running high, as they always do in this season. It’s Roman practice to bring additional troops down to Jerusalem to help with crowd control and to be close at hand in case the usual disturbances break into open revolt.
On Sunday, a small group of ragtag peasants and fisherfolk from Galilee, led by their rabbi, had entered the city. They staged some sort of public display. It’s not clear how many of them there were, but there was a donkey and palm fronds. It was clearly drawing on imagery from Jewish scripture and history—this was imagery associated with the Davidic monarchy, and it’s likely that the leader was making some sort of messianic claims, interpreted by his followers and hangers-on as a call to rebellion against Rome.
The first thing they did after entering Jerusalem was to go to the temple. Most tourists did that, for Jews, the temple was likely the reason they had come to Jerusalem. It was spectacular—rebuilt by Herod the Great, still under construction. It gleamed with marble and gold in the distance. But this group didn’t go to the temple to worship or offer sacrifice. Their leader entered the temple courtyard, headed straight for the tables of the moneychangers, and again, caused some sort of disturbance, overturning the tables, crying out against their presence in this sacred space.
They left the city, it was evening, and went to the nearby town of Bethany, where they spent the night (either with friends, or because the accommodations were cheaper there than in the city during a high tourist season).
The next day, they came back in and headed straight for the temple again. And over the course of that day, their leader, Jesus taught and engaged in conversation and debate with various religious figures and groups. Over the course of this day, things get more pointed, as Jesus directs his attention at the religious elite, criticizing them for their actions and telling parables that are clearly directed at them. At one point, Matthew reports that the chief priests and Pharisees wanted to take action against him, arrest him, but they held back because of the crowds that were listening to him. It may also have been that they weren’t sure what charges they could bring against, whether those charges would stick, and whether they could convince the Romans that Jesus was enough of a threat to go after him.
So, some Pharisees and Herodians got together. That in itself is quite interesting. They were two groups that had little in common and were political opponents. The Herodians, as the name suggests, were supporters of Herod’s family, who had come to power through their connections with Rome. While they had done things to ingratiate themselves with the Jewish populace, like rebuiliding and expanding the temple, they were despised because of their support for Rome. The Pharisees were generally opposed to the Roman occupation, though they were unlikely to support armed revolt.
So when these two groups come together to ask Jesus this question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor,” they think they’ve got Jesus trapped. The Herodians would say yes, the Pharisees likely would say no (but pay anyway). And if Jesus agrees with either of them, he’s in trouble. If he says “yes” he would likely lose whatever popular support he had. If he says “no,” they can have him arrested for sedition.
But, as is usually the case in these dialogues between Jesus and his opponents or questioners, Jesus turns the question back on them. First he asked them for a coin. Then he asked them a question, Whose image and title is on the coin? Caesar’s was their reply.
Already, there’s a great deal of interesting stuff in this story. Jesus asks for a coin, and out comes from someone’s pockets, a denarius. In the Roman Empire, coins were minted with the image of the emperor. Because of the commandment against images, however, most Jews considered Roman coinage, with the emperor’s image and an inscription alluding to his divinity idolatrous. In fact, special coinage without an image of the empire was minted and used in the Jewish temple precincts, where this conversation took place. It would have been embarrassing, to say the least, for one of Jesus’ interrogators to come out with such a coin.
Jesus asks them a question when the coin is offered: “Whose likeness does it bear?” The Greek word Matthew uses here is “ikon” It’s the same word used in the Greek translation of Genesis 1:26, when God says, ““Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” And I suspect that Matthew had that connection in mind. He wanted his readers to reflect on the significance of what it means to bear the “image and likeness” of God.
Jesus may have avoided the trap that the Pharisees and Herodians laid for him. But he has left us with important questions. What does it mean to be created in the image and likeness of God? It’s not just that as we humans we all share that same nature, being created in the image and likeness of God—that we need to remember that all of us, whatever our ethnic background or nationality, whatever our sexual orientation, gender identification, whatever our political views, our economic status, we are all created in God’s image and likeness. It’s also that remembering whose image we bear ought to make a difference in the way we live our lives, in our actions, in our goals and aspirations. What difference would it make, if, as we think about decisions we have to make, the choices we’re faced with, we paused for a moment and asked ourselves, Will what I do, what I choose show to myself and others that I bear God’s image and likeness?
Think for a moment, about how you might make sense of Jesus’ next sentence, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, give to God what is God’s,” if you approach it from the perspective of being created in God’s image and likeness.
This little sentence has become one of the proof texts for a certain understanding of the relationship of church and state, the relationship between the competing demands of the government and our Christian faith. Most of us view it somewhat simplistically. As citizens of the US, we are obligated to obey the government, pay taxes, and the like, and our faith is a largely personal, private thing. But if we are created in God’s image and likeness, if we bear that image and likeness, and if we are called to shape our lives, remake our image and likeness according to the model of that image and likeness revealed to us in Jesus Christ, then limiting our faith to a private, individual corner of our full and busy lives, seems like quite an inadequate response to the God who created us.
And so it may be that as we live out our lives, seeking to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ, bearers of God’s image and likeness, these two questions—what does it mean for our daily lives that we bear God’s image and likeness, and that second question, how do we embody, live out, that command, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, Give to God what is God’s,” are the most important questions we face.