Whose Image Is This?

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by Nancy Ann McLaughlin
March 15, 2010
Image of Denarius Coin
From CC-Art.com

     Have you filed your taxes yet?  At this time of year many Christians recall Jesus’ words, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Mathew 22:21). But note that the people were reported to have been “amazed” by what Jesus said, so there was more going on than simply saying, “Go ahead and pay your taxes.”

  First note that both the Pharisees and the Herodians (those loyal to the Roman-appointed King Herod) intended to trap Jesus when they asked the question about whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar.  If Jesus said, “don’t pay,” the Herodians would have reported him to the Roman officials; but if Jesus said, “pay the tax,” then his followers – Jews who did not like being under Roman rule – would have been disenchanted. And at first glance it appears as though Jesus’ response of “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” is a quick and snappy comeback that satisfies both parties, but it actually would have spoke much more deeply to the people of that time.

     Notice that Jesus asked someone to show him the coin – a denarius.  He did not have one on him.  None of the Jews should have owned the coin because there was a prohibition against having pictures, since they were known to promote idol worship. “Do not turn to idols or make gods of cast metal for yourselves. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:4, NIV, the NRSV uses the word images). And Jesus specifically asked, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” (Mt 22:20).  The reigning emperor at the time was Tiberius Caesar and the inscription on his coins read “the son of the divine Augustus Caesar.” [Or since Tiberius was not Augustus’ natural son but had laid claim to his throne, the Latin could be translated “the divine son of Augustus.”]  Furthermore the reverse side of the coin read Pontif Maxim or highest ruler.

     Now, to a Jewish believer of that time this is “just all wrong!”- graven images, kings who called themselves divine and who claimed to be higher than the Most High God!  Jesus didn’t care what the people did with the coins – he was making them realize the serious idolatry involved in buying into the system.

     But the most telling part of this account is, of course, the bottom line: “Give to God what is God’s.”  But what would this mean to the people of Jesus’ time?  What is God’s? God didn’t make coins, but Jesus’ Jewish audience would have automatically known the biblical account of humans being “made in God’s image” (Genesis 1:26-27). And that the very next part of that passage indicated that the role of humans was to be god-like in caring for the whole of creation – all of which is God’s – all of which is good.  “Give to God what is God’s” – “Made in God’s image” – Jesus was telling the people to give, not just everything, but especially themselves, to God.

Contact Nancy at Nancy@GodParenting.info