Whose Coin Is It?


"Answer the question: yes or no? Keep it simple--just yes or no." The situation in the Gospel this week reminds me of a congressional hearing. We've all heard and seen these carefully orchestrated morality plays. Someone in Congress gets riled up about faulty ignition switches in General Motors cars or who the National Security Administration is spying on or what really happened to our embassy in Benghazi and calls for hearings, complete with lots of media coverage. Once the hearing has geared up, though, it's easy to forget its original purpose. Those asking questions do not seem to be seeking information, understanding, enlightenment, or, heaven forbid, truth. They just want to score points with the electorate back home. They are trying to make the witness or a corporation or the other political party look bad. They are playing "gotcha!" And at a key point in the hearing, some questioner, having simplistically reduced the issue to one loaded choice, inevitably asks, "Just answer the question--yes or no?"

That's pretty much the situation Jesus is facing in the Gospel text this week. He's surrounded by an alliance of religious and political leaders who are trying to trap him with his own words. It's nothing new for Jesus; Pharisees have been testing him throughout his ministry. But now, after Jesus has entered Jerusalem to the acclamation of the crowds as King and Messiah, the stakes have been raised. He's no longer just a local nuisance; he's a threat to the religious and political order. The Pharisees want to arrest Jesus, but are afraid of his popular support (Matthew 21:46). So the disciples of the Pharisees and supporters of the Herodian dynasty try a new gambit, one that is sure to either undermine Jesus' popularity with the crowds or make it clear that he is a traitor to Rome. Either outcome will help them accomplish their goal.

So they go to where Jesus is teaching in the Temple and begin with flattery: "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." The questioners perhaps want to soften Jesus up in preparation for blindsiding him, but their words also challenge him to answer their question authentically. Ironically, whatever their intent, they also speak the truth. Then they spring their question: "Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" In other words, "Just answer the question: yes or no, either/or, choose one now."

The disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians have selected their question and framed it carefully. The head tax had been imposed by Rome at the time of its conquest. Each year every person had to pay the equivalent of a laborer's daily wage for the privilege of being a subject of the Roman Empire and of supporting the cost of Rome's occupation. To add insult to injury, the tax had to be paid with a Roman coin, the denarius, which had the image of the emperor stamped on one side and an inscription on the other: "Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, most high priest."

The tax was highly unpopular--and not just for the obvious reasons. For many religious people, possessing and using the coin was blasphemy against God's law, particularly the commandments against graven images and idolatry. For those with nationalistic aspirations, the tax was a constant reminder that they were a subject people. So if Jesus stated that paying taxes to the emperor was lawful, many in the supportive crowds likely would desert him. On the other hand, the members of Herod's royal family and other leaders had come to terms with the Roman rulers and supported the tax. If Jesus declared it was not lawful, the authorities would arrest him as a traitor and political rebel. There is no safe response. "Just answer the question, Jesus, yes or no." His opponents are sure that whatever he answers, the problem of Jesus is about to be solved.

But Jesus, who is well aware of their nature and purpose, seizes the initiative by demanding that they show him the coin used to pay the tax. Note that Jesus himself does not carry such a coin, but his inquisitors do, even in the Temple. Then Jesus asks them a question: Whose image and inscription does the coin bear? When they reply, "The emperor's," Jesus declares, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's . . . ." At first it seems as if Jesus has agreed with those who collaborate with Rome, but in the next breath he adds what no truly religious person can object to: "and to God the things that are God's."

That addition changes everything. It bursts the strait jacket bonds of yes/no, either/or. It puts the emperor firmly in his place in a much broader universe ruled by the Most High God. It proclaims God's reign over everything and everyone. It takes a "gotcha" question meant to entrap and ultimately kill and opens it up into life-giving instruction about the relationship between us and the Creator. As his questioners had unwittingly prophesied earlier, Jesus is teaching "the way of God in accordance with truth."

With his proclamation Jesus acknowledges that God's law allows what is imprinted with the emperor's image to be given back to him, but he also insists that it be done in the ultimately more important context of giving what is imprinted with God's image back to God. You and I were created in God's image (Genesis 1:26-27), and Jesus calls us to return to God all that we are and all that we have been given. Yes, we can give the emperor one coin, one day's wage as his due, but that's the extent of what he is owed. There is, however, no limit on what is due to God since everyone and everything is God's.

The problem is that we don't live as if this is true. Caesar gets his due by taxing us; and most of us, however reluctantly, pay those taxes, knowing that they are for the common good and that there are limits to them. But God doesn't tax us; God doesn't set a fixed rate of return. God simply says, "You are my beloved creation. I have demonstrated my faithfulness to you over and over. I have given you everything, even my beloved only Son. I have called you to be my children, to live in my kingdom, and to participate in my reign over the world." But rather than living and giving out of the abundance of God's gifts, we act like misers--setting limits on our stewardship, rendering to God the last fruits rather than the first, calculating how little we can give back or give away, pleading poverty of time, talents, and treasure. We make giving to Caesar and to everyone else a priority--and God gets the leftovers. So we, like the religious and political leaders of Jesus' day, stand accused by his words. Despite what we say, our actions declare we are not really interested in hearing about the way of God--let alone living that way. So in the face of Jesus' instruction and invitation, we can go away, confused and confounded, like Jesus' inquisitors, or we can turn, confess our sins, and ask to be forgiven.

Jesus not only models the life of giving everything to God, he makes it possible for us to do the same. Because of his trust in God's love and care, he willingly gave up all that he had and all that he was. He emptied himself, humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross (Philippians 2:7-8). And because Jesus followed God's way, God raised him from the dead. Through Christ's resurrection, we have been forgiven and healed; we have been offered new life. By the dwelling of the Spirit within us, we have the power to live as Jesus did, to walk in God's way. Like Jesus, we can trust in God's love and care and give freely to God ourselves, our time, and our possessions for use in the world that God loves and cares for.

No one claims that this life is easy. It requires difficult, thoughtful, and sometimes painful decisions and choices. But we disciples, made in God's image, even as we dutifully give to Caesar what is Caesar's, are called into a life that thankfully and joyously first gives to God what is God's. Amen.

Let us pray. Sovereign God, raise your throne in our hearts. Created by you, let us live in your image; created for you, let us act for your glory; redeemed by you, let us give you what is yours, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.