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. - Matthew 22:15-22 -
In 1773, the phrase “taxation without representation is tyranny” was first coined. Three years later America became an independent nation. And guess what we’re still arguing over? Taxes!
It’s an issue as old as time. Matthew gives us a taste of what it was like in first century Palestine, one of many territories who were required to pay taxes to the Roman Empire.
Just as America had loyalists to the English crown, the Emperor had the Herodians, a secular group of Jewish supporters of the puppet king Herod Antipas, who most-likely skimmed from the revenue meant for Rome.
The Herodians colluded with the uber religious Pharisees who weren’t keen on paying Caesar anything. The Pharisees saw how the suffocating tax rate smothered their people and enslaved them in revolving debt. It kept them under the thumb and at the mercy of their conqueror.
Still this very strange alliance wasn’t put together to debate tax-reform. They came together to stymie Jesus’ growing influence and power. You got to hand it to them. It was a very clever trap, a political conundrum designed to be that “gotcha!” moment to get Jesus in trouble. But leave it up to Jesus to find a loophole.
Before he answers their question, he asks to see the coin used to pay the tax. It is a denarius, a familiar silver coin that equaled a day’s wage for the average laborer. It wasn’t a Jewish coin. It was Roman. Which meant it had an image of Tiberius Caesar, the reigning emperor, stamped on it. The coins also had the words ‘Long live the Son of God,’…a title reserved only for Caesars.
To a good and faithful Jew, the Roman coins broke a number of commandments - no graven images comes to mind. (Notice who didn’t have one in his purse.)
When they show Jesus the coin, he asks a basic, simple question that he knew they couldn’t get wrong. “Whose image is on this coin?” When they answer correctly, Jesus tells them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” It's like he just leaves it up to them to decide who gets what.
Writing in the 3rd Century, Tertullian translated Jesus’ response to say, “Give to Caesar… Caesar’s image, which is on the coin and to God … God’s image, which is on mankind.” His translation was based on the idea from Genesis 1, that everything created by God bears the image of God.
The one definitive, universal characteristic of every human being is that we all have God’s divine inscription etched within us. Worth more than silver or gold, this inscription gives us our worth and purpose.
Like Phil Hooper wrote, “God is not interested in your coins but in your conscience, in your compassion and your complicity with the empires of this world.”
We belong to God. And yet, we continue to chase after that which is Caesar’s. We strive to make gods out of coins, but struggle to allow God to be made fully manifest in us.
Jesus knew that a royal coin, crown, or robe that bear Caesar’s image are merely material things; objects that thieves can steal, rust can destroy, and moths can eat. You and I do not belong to Caesar. We belong to God whose dwells within each one of us.
To quote Thomas Merton, “There is that in you that no one can destroy or diminish because it belongs completely to God.”
Jesus knew Caesar is finite and life taking. But God is infinite and life giving. Same is true of God’s Son.
Rulers don’t want us to be like them. They want us to be in fear of them so we will serve them. God actually wants us to be the living manifestation of God’s image, like Jesus was, so others can discover the divine indwelling of love within themselves.
Jesus wants us to receive and enjoy the love he offers. Love that was given to him by God, he gives to us - not because we earned it, but because he chose to love us independently of any effort on our part. (Nouwen)
That God-given love we receive from him, should be the same love that flows through us to each other. “Jesus was one human person among many, just as the Church is one organization among many. But Jesus is the Christ; he is Emmanuel, “God with us,” revealing God's love to us.”
Just as Jesus came to us, he sends us to go to others. Our job as his sacred body is to go out into Anamesa, that space between everything, to continue what he started: ushering in the kingdom of heaven by being and sharing God’s love in the world. This is a kingdom that runs on God’s economy, not Caesar’s.
Again…Caesar wants to take from us. God wants to give, give, give to us. There is no limit to God’s generosity. “What God wants is nothing less than to come and abide in your heart Jesus did not care about the tax. His real concern was that you live in the image and likeness of God, who lovingly created you.” (Lague)
The way we begin to live into the image and likeness of God is to shape and form your life to be more like Jesus, and less like Caesar. We were very intentional when we set our mission for the church. To follow Christ Jesus, which means to love God, love others, and serve both.
The Herodians and Pharisees couldn’t have been any more different, same could be said about Jesus and Caesar, or you and me.
Yet, we have all been minted and stamped with God’s imprint. We are all sons and daughters of God. And thus we were all made to love all…even if it means sacrificing ourselves to do so.
So here’s what I hope you remember from today. Do not let Caesar’s world define you. Instead allow God’s universal love to come alive in you. Let the peace of God shape you, and allow God’s joy to embrace you and lead you to be who you were made to be: One with God. One with Christ. One with Spirit.
Because you possess that sacred, indwelling divine image, you are worth what God is worth. You are precious as Christ is precious. And as powerful as the Spirit is powerful.
So give Caesar his damn coins. And give God everything else. Your flesh and blood has a value that cannot be calculated by human means.
Bartlett, David, Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox) 2011. pp. 188-193.
Claiborne, Shane. Jesus for President. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan) 2008. pp.116-17.
Hoffacker, Charles. The Coin That God Wants. October 16, 2005. (Accessed on October 20, 2023).
Hooper, Phil. Games. October 22, 2023 (Accessed on October 20, 2023).
Logue, Frank S. Render Unto God What Is God’s. October 19, 2014. (Accessed on October 20, 2023)
Thomas Merton quote is from a devotional by Richard Rohr, October 2017.
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”