Readings for this Sunday:
Exodus 33:12–23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1–10; Matthew 22:15–22
The interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees is well known, especially for his response: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” It disarmed his challengers, but modern readers may not completely understand why. To produce a coin of the Roman empire meant that they were carrying one (Jesus and his followers did not, apparently). But to carry a Roman coin, with the image of the emperor, whom the Romans had titled “the divine Caesar,” was to violate the second commandment, prohibiting the possession of idols.
Of course, it was necessary to carry Roman coinage to survive (and to pay the tax!): a pragmatic accommodation was necessary. This was the reason for the money-changing tables for the Temple: to change civil coinage for acceptable Temple currency.
But Jesus’ response to the Pharisees is more than a clever answer. By leading towards the idea that the Emperor’s image establishes ownership of the coinage, Jesus implicitly asked the question: what belongs to God? Remembering that humanity is “created in the image of God,” we have to conclude that we bear God’s image upon is and within us, and we therefore belong to God – all of us.
This has directed Christians’ way of dealing with one another and the world since earliest times, marking Christians as radically different from the prevailing culture by way of compassion and mutual care. We must let it direct our relationships with one another today.