King Herod and his sons were not the most pious of Jews, but they scrupled to mint coins that conformed to biblical laws forbidding human or divine images. Herodian coins of Jesus’ day displayed abstract designs and brief inscriptions of the coin’s weight and year of mintage. This was not the case with the coins necessary for Roman taxes, which circulated alongside the others. Each carried a portrait of the emperor on the front and a relief of the goddess Roma on the back. Each bore the inscription “Tiberius Caesar, eminent son of the divine Augustus; high priest.”
‘Show me the coin that pays the census tax.’ (Mt 22:19)
What sovereigns do you repay? Which of their images do you carry?
How can you strive for the gifts that come from faith?
These coins troubled many Jews. Their imagery violated the Torah. Their inscription was a blasphemy that affirmed the divinity of emperors and the validity of pagan worship. Their widespread use was a reminder of Roman domination. Whether or not a faithful Jew could use such an object provoked fierce debates.
Some Pharisees try to trap Jesus in this debate. “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” The Pharisees did pay the tax. They drew a belief from texts like our first reading that authority was God’s gift. Just as God had once handed Cyrus the Persian authority over Israel, God had now mysteriously handed authority to the Romans. The Pharisees begrudgingly obeyed them until the day when God would send the messiah. Not so the Zealots, who believed that God would send a messiah only after Israel proved its fidelity through defiance. Zealots resisted the tax and rose up against it on at least one occasion (Acts 5:37). Jesus’ cleansing of the temple (Mt 21:12-17) probably caught Zealot attention, and now Jesus’ opponents saw an opportunity to connect him to this outlaw movement.
By drawing attention to the coin, Jesus sidesteps this trap. Coins reinforced Roman domination through ideology. Their use implied that it was the emperor, the son of a god, who rewarded labor and provided daily bread. It was Tiberius Caesar, the high priest, who secured blessings for people of the empire. Even though many could look beyond these claims, no one could deny that Roman wealth secured status and power for any who could accumulate it.
“Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Matthew’s sly implication, that Jesus was not carrying any Roman coins but that his opponents could produce one without trouble, reveals the depth of their collusion. In Jesus’ mind, their possession of such coins revealed not just a love of wealth but a deeper reliance on false power and a commensurate weakening of faith in God.
Christ’s disciples today are subject to similar false powers. Many struggle against a reliance on ideologies or systems that demand much but offer repayment only with shadows of the gifts that come from God. These sovereigns can confer social status but not community, power but not trust, wealth but not fulfillment, pleasure but not joy. By contrast, God, who requires only our faith, provides the love of family and friends, the wisdom to reveal the kingdom in every place, the power to bind up broken hearts and a life that triumphs even over death.