“Give … to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s
and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21b)
They’ve come up with the perfect plan.
If Jesus says “no, it’s not lawful for us, as Jews, to pay taxes to the emperor” then the Roman authorities will act swiftly to crush the suggestion of rebellion and many of Jesus’ followers will be frightened off.
If Jesus says “yes, we should pay taxes to the emperor” he will lose those among his followers who are hoping he will lead a movement to free them from Roman rule.
And there’s more …
The denarius, the coin used for the payment of taxes, carries the image of Caesar and an inscription describing Caesar as Son of God. The image and the title offend against Jewish laws which prohibit the making of graven images and the worship of any other God. So he might even give the Pharisees grounds for accusations of blasphemy.
So, it is the perfect plan – however he answers their question the threat he poses
to their authority and status will be neutralised.
The trouble is they have yet again under-estimated Jesus.
We might imagine the Pharisees’ faces when they realise with dismay that it’s all gone pear-shaped. When Jesus answers “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s” they know that, somehow,
Jesus has managed to get the better of them – again. He hasn’t spoken out clearly on one side or the other, the trap is empty and they’re looking foolish – again.
And at the centre is the towering figure of Jesus who sees straight through the insincerity and hypocrisy
Of course the question was not posed as a genuine seeking of advice, or to open up a discussion on the subject. But if the Pharisees had genuinely wanted an answer to their question what would they have made of Jesus reply?
What are we to make of it today?
There’s a phrase I’ve read some time ago about this passage which has stayed with me ever since:
“The coin bears Caesar’s image, give it back to him.
You bear God’s image: so give yourself back to him.”
I think Jesus is calling the Pharisees, and us, if we can hear him, to remember who we are – the people of God whose image we bear and whose presence is with us.
He calls us to see things as God sees them, to live in this world with Kingdom values of love, justice and mercy rather than the values of power, wealth and social status.
The message of Jesus is that the Kingdom of God is among us now, within this world
with all its complicated forms of government, authority and administration of justice.
It is from within this world that Jesus calls us to give to God what belongs to God
who is constantly working to make his voice heard.
And his voice is heard. It might be hard to hear it under the clamour of everyday life
but it’s there, like the still small voice after the earthquake, wind and fire.
It’s the voice that cuts through the commercial atmosphere of competition and exploitation with the voice of fairness and encouragement
It’s the voice that cuts through cries for vengeance and war with the voice of understanding and peace
It’s the voice that cuts through the strident tones of ambition and ruthlessness with the voice of humility and gentleness
The call is for our voices to speak this language of God’s Kingdom in this world, along with others who speak that language, even if they call it something different.
“You bear God’s image: so give yourself back to him”.
It’s a call to put the vision of God’s Kingdom above our own prejudices, resentments, jealousies and ambitions.
It’s a call for us to be the people God wants and needs us to be and a call to give thanks that his presence, in all its glory, is with us in the world.
We bear God’s image, so let us give ourselves back to him.
 “The Message of Matthew” by Michael Green