A Denarius for Your Thoughts
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Charles Dudley Warner, I believe it was, once observed that “politics makes strange bedfellows.” That is certainly the case today as we look at the passage from Matthew 22 that we read a few moments ago. Right from the top, Matthew tips us off about the nefarious motives of Jesus’s antagonists: “Then the Pharisees went,” he says, “and plotted to entrap [Jesus] in what he said” (v. 15). Matthew goes on to describe the odd coalition they cobbled together to accomplish this purpose: “They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians” (v. 16).
The thing of it is, these two groups hate each other. Or at least they do not care for each other’s political allegiances and interpretations of the Law. The Herodians, as you probably already figured out from the name, are loyal to the line of Herod the Great. They seek to restore that family’s sovereignty over not only Galilee, where Herod Antipas still reigns, but also over Judea and the other regions that have fallen under the direct administration of Roman procurators such as Pontius Pilate. Knowing, of course, that Antipas and even Herod the Great himself held their thrones by grant of the Roman emperor, they are solidly in favor of paying taxes to Caesar.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, because of their strict adherence to the Law, find the idea of paying tribute to a pagan overlord abominable. They hold to the ancient principle that God alone is the true ruler of Israel, and when it comes to human kings, only one from the line chosen by God—the line of David—could have any legitimacy in their eyes. Since Herod did not hail from David’s line, and more to the point, since he gained his kingship by going to Rome back in the day and lobbying Caesar Augustus for a crown, the Pharisees do not hold the Herodians in particularly high favor.
But here they are, strange bedfellows indeed, thrown together into an alliance against this wild Galilean prophet who threatens each group through his teachings, the new communities he is forming, and his fundamental challenge to the status quo. Nothing unites like a common enemy, and the Pharisees and Herodians have found one in Jesus.
It’s hardly surprising which issue they choose to try and trap Jesus. To this day, few topics in public life are as divisive as taxation. Just listen to members of our two major political parties when the subject comes up. Candidates’ debates regularly feature squabbles over taxes, with one candidate accusing the other of being a “tax-and-spend liberal” and the other condemning her opponent’s record for cutting taxes for the rich and placing an undue burden on the middle class and the poor. These debates are fresh in our minds as the Republicans seek to pass a comprehensive tax reform bill.
The goal, of course, is to win the support of the electorate by discrediting one’s opponents. The Herodians and Pharisees have similar motives. Although they come down on opposite sides of the question of whether it is right to pay the Roman tribute, forcing Jesus to choose one of those sides will serve their common purpose. One answer will make Jesus unpopular with the crowds, who resent the mandatory tribute they have to pay their Gentile overlords. The other answer will have the sinister effect of identifying Jesus to Mr. Pilate and his henchmen as a dissident and a threat to the public order who must not be tolerated. When you think about it, it’s a masterful trap they devise for Jesus.
The way they introduce the trap deserves some credit as well: “Teacher,” they say in verse 16, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are.” It would be easy to dismiss this as mere flattery designed to soften up Jesus and throw him off his guard. But it actually plays a much more important role than that. The introduction becomes part of the trap itself, as it sort of throws down the gauntlet. “We know how honest and straightforward you are, Jesus, and so do they,” the speaker says with a significant nod in the direction of the crowd. The subtext of this bit of soft soap is, “So this would be a bad time to start hedging, what with all these people hanging on your every word, thinking you’re some kind of god or something.” (These Pharisees can sneer with the best of them, but apparently they have no sense of irony.)
“Tell us then,” they say, leaning in, narrowing their eyes, and practically licking their chops at the prospect of painting Jesus at long last into a corner he can’t get out of. “Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” (v. 17). Jesus is neither taken in by their flattery nor thrown off balance by their cleverness. “Knowing their evil intent,” Matthew says, Jesus responds, “‘You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.’ They brought him a denarius” (vv. 18–19).
Let us pause here for a second to remember the setting of this encounter. Today’s episode is part of a series of encounters and parables that take place the day after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. This series begins in Matthew 21:23, which says, “When he entered the temple….” That this confrontation takes place in the temple is vital for us to understand just what’s going here and what Jesus’s answer to his opponents’ trap really means. More on that in a moment.
First, however, let’s consider the standard interpretation of this story. The saying, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” long ago entered the common lexicon of our culture, and most often it is understood to mean that faithful Christians will also be loyal citizens—paying their taxes, fighting in their country’s wars, and except in the most extreme circumstances following the rules set down by the state. To “render unto Caesar” has come to mean that we owe something to the powers that be, and that Jesus has commanded us to pay what we owe.
Ever since the Protestant Reformation began (500 years ago this month), preachers and interpreters have used this statement of Jesus’s to reinforce the “two realms” theory. That’s the idea, first put forth by Martin Luther, that Christian citizens live their lives under two distinct and separate spheres of authority: the church and the state. Both are established by God, and so we are beholden to both, but their areas of influence don’t really overlap. The church bears responsibility for the inner, spiritual lives of people, while the secular authorities have jurisdiction over politics, economics, and pretty much everything else.
Taken too literally, this “two realms” way of thinking discourages Christians from engaging in political affairs—or at least it requires them to leave their political convictions outside the door of the church, and not to allow their religious convictions to guide them when they act in the public square. Taken to an extreme (which, unfortunately, some Christians have been known to do), it can foster a hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil, “my country right or wrong” brand of patriotism in which the cross gets tangled up in the American flag or, to use an example from another era and another part of the world, gets twisted into a swastika. When things like that happen, we must pause and ask ourselves if that interpretation is even remotely faithful to Jesus’s original intentions.
It is not.
What this reading fails to take into account is the historical and cultural context in which Jesus first spoke these words, including the bedrock religious principles that underlay both him and his opponents. And so we return to the crucial observation that this episode takes place in the temple. The day before this encounter, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem for Passover, and goes straight to the temple where, among other things, he turns over the tables of the moneychangers.
We don’t have time to go into the reasons why he does this, but we make a mistake if we assume that he objects to the moneychangers per se. As long as they do not engage in profiteering, they actually serve a legitimate and worthwhile service, especially during busy times such as Passover. At the risk of sounding redundant, the moneychangers’ job is to change money. Specifically, they exchange travelers’ unacceptable coinage, such as the Roman denarius, for shekels that can be used in the temple.
The denarius and other coins like it from the pagan world are not allowed beyond the outer courts of the temple because they bear images and therefore break the second commandment, “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Exod 20:4, NIV). The sanctuary shekel, by contrast, contains no “graven image” and is therefore acceptable.
People say a lot of wonderful things about Jesus all the time, but one thing you don’t often hear is that Jesus could be sneaky. I mean this in the most respectful way possible. We have perhaps the single best example of Jesus’s admirable sneakiness right here in this encounter. The Pharisees and Herodians huddle together for who knows how long and think they have come up with the perfect question to trap Jesus in his words, but in nine simple words, off the cuff but devastating in their sneaky brilliance, he turns the tables on them completely. “Show me the coin used for paying the tax,” he says in verse 19. That’s it. Nine words. So simple, yet so superb.
Superb because, although he seems to be playing right into their hands, he is actually winning the argument. So eager are these guys to spring their trap on Jesus that without thinking they grab a denarius and show it to Jesus. “Let’s see him get out of this one,” some of them are probably thinking. Maybe one or two of the more quick-witted among them start to catch on as the coin is produced, but by then it’s too late. I like to imagine one of the Pharisees having a sort of out-of-body experience—one of those times when everything goes into slow-motion. As he watches himself pull a denarius out of his pocket and start to hand it over, he realizes what is going on and says to himself, “Oh, fudge!” He watches the rope they have so carefully placed at the feet of Jesus suddenly go taut around his own ankles. Next thing he knows he’s hanging upside-down, figuratively speaking—a hunter who has sprung his own trap. How humiliating!
The denarius, you see, is the central element in this drama. We haven’t even got to Jesus’s justly famous dictum about rendering unto Caesar, and the game is already up. The moment his opponents produce a denarius there in the temple, they lose the argument, along with what little credibility they still have with the people. Jesus doesn’t have a denarius; he has to ask them to show him one. When they do, he says, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” (v. 20, NIV). You can almost see, can’t you, the significant look Jesus gives them, raised eyebrows and all, when he pronounces the word “image”? And you can hear their hearts sink and all their best-laid plans crash to the ground as they mutter their answer: “Caesar’s” (v. 21). They have been caught with their hands in the cookie jar, so to speak. They have broken God’s commandment by carrying pagan images into the temple in a misguided effort to outwit and ultimately destroy God’s anointed one. Jesus has beaten them at their own game.
See? Sneaky. And marvelous.
Having established the basic dishonesty of his questioners, Jesus goes on to offer his famous statement. The TNIV renders it this way: “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (v. 21). Jesus is speaking about allegiances and the repayment of debts. What is it about a denarius that demands allegiance or repayment?
The answer can be found in the image and the inscription. A denarius circulating in the time of Jesus would have been stamped with the image of the current emperor and the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus.” For a first-century Jew to carry such a coin would not only violate the commandment against images, but would also tag him or her as a collaborator with a pagan emperor who claimed to be the son of a god. Jesus, the true Son of God, does not carry the coin and so his hands are clean. He recognizes no debt of allegiance to Caesar whatsoever.
The second part of the saying, then, is key: “Give to God what is God’s.” The denarius bears the image of Caesar, and Jesus says, “The coin is his, so give it back to him.” It follows that that which bears the image of God should be given back to God. And what bears God’s image? We do. Go back to Genesis 1, where God makes humankind in God’s own image and likeness (see Gen 1:26–27). If you carry around the image of Caesar on your money, Jesus says, then you have declared your allegiance and you should pay the tribute: give back the coin that bears his image. But all of us, by virtue of our humanity, carry around the image of God at all times, so the debt we owe to God is our whole selves.
Jesus is no dummy, of course. He knows that neither Caesar nor any other ruler will ever be satisfied with mere coinage. The emperors and powers of the world always overreach. They always want more than they deserve. In less than a week those who represent Caesar and those who have chosen to collaborate with him will demand from Jesus nothing less than his life. Jesus will indeed go to his death on a Roman cross, but he will go not at the behest of the Pilates and Caesars and chief priests of the world, but rather in obedience to the God whose image he bears, in order to liberate all of us who also bear that image—brokenly, yes, but beautifully as well.
The good news today—the unexpected, world-shattering, subversive good news—is that no one owns us but God. We may sell ourselves into slavery to the gods of this world; we may compromise our allegiance and offer our worship and devotion to unworthy idols; but Jesus has already paid the price to buy us back. God is ready to liberate us from our bondage the moment we come to our senses, and is ready to give us a new purpose and direction that will change our lives forever.
Once we know that, how can we ever again sell ourselves out to the petty Caesars of this world? Give the emperor back his silly coin; give God what belongs to God: everything. In the immortal words of Isaac Watts, “Were the whole realm of nature mine, / that were a present far too small. / Love so amazing, so divine / demands my soul, my life, my all.”