So you’re reading—or being read—Matthew 22:15-22.
Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.
Jesus is at his rhetorical finest, breaking the trap of the Pharisees by pointing out that taxes are paid with Caesar’s own coin, and how then do you argue against giving it to him?
But then Christ goes on to assert that, in like manner, the “things that are God’s” should be given to God.
And you blink. What is Jesus talking about? Sure, it’s clear that the implication is that the “things that are Caesar’s” are the coins. But what are God’s corresponding things? And what point should we derive from that identification?
It’s not made explicit in the text. The conversation just ends abruptly, with no elaboration to be had.
Except the Pharisees don’t need any. They get it, and it makes them marvel.
Turns out, we don’t need Christ to spell it out either. All we need to do is apply a little basic thinking to the comparison Christ sets forth:
A denarius is to Caesar
____ is to God
Fill in the blank. And remember, whatever goes on that spot should have the effect of making the Pharisees marvel, or it’s back to the drawing board. Should be a simple enough logic problem, right?
And yet, this is where things often get dicey.
It’s Money, Isn’t It?
Many preachers take the lazy way out on this text. They make the correlation out to say:
A denarius (money) is to Caesar
Money is to God
It makes some level of sense. Since there’s a blank to fill, let’s just plug the hole with the corresponding entity from the Caesar clause. Nice, simple, and balanced. And now we can preach on tithing, awesome!
Except some pastors are shy on talking about tithing from the pulpit. So, the focus remains on the first comparison and we instead get a sermon about submitting to the government and the necessity of paying our taxes.
Say it with me: not the point.
Besides, would the Pharisees marvel at being told to make sure they gave to the temple fund in like manner as they give to Caesar? I can hear it now, with Jesus admonishing: “but use the temple coins without the graven image next time, ya hypocrites!”
No. This is not the right answer to our fill-in-the-blank logic problem.
Back to Kindergarten
Other preachers fall into what I call the “pious error.” That is, the insertion of “Jesus” into any blank that’s not immediately and obviously filled with something else. This makes the correlation out to say:
A denarius is to Caesar
Jesus is to God
And immediately, this approach seems to have some strength to it. We’re predisposed to the “Jesus answer” of Sunday School fame from our younger days. And, in a parallel with Caesar’s coin, Jesus is the image of the invisible God (cf. Col 1:15). And, hey! It makes the text directly about Jesus! Who could argue with that?
Well, Jesus himself probably.
For one thing, the Pharisees would not have recognized our Sunday School answer as valid. In Sabbath School the easy answer is “YHWH” (as long as it’s pronounced “Adonai”). No marveling on that count.
For another, they would certainly not have felt the same way as St. Paul when he penned his letter to the Colossians many years later. And let’s not forget that when Jesus makes a claim to deity (such as Paul is doing with this language in Colossians) the Pharisees prove themselves in other passages more prone to pick up stones than marvel and walk off.
And, as we will see, this answer also ignores an important data point that can help us determine precisely the identity of our blank space. A data point that, along with the rest, caused the Pharisees to marvel when they figured it out in that moment themselves.
The Keys to the Passage
For sure, one of the things the “Jesus” answer to our fill-in-the-blank problem gets right is recognizing the importance of Christ’s mention of the “image” on the coin. It’s clearly something he’s using to make his point which, again, is more than just “it’s got his picture on it, so hand it over to him, kids.”
What it ignores is that the “image” isn’t the only aspect of the denarius Christ points out—and therefore not the only clue we have as to the right answer.
He also asks about the inscription on the coin.
In every version of the Synoptics, no less, just so you know it’s important.
Together, the image and inscription give us our answer—one that marvels the Pharisees, not only in its truthfulness, but also in the brilliance Christ shows in it.
But let’s go back to the first and easier clue for a moment: the image.
Remember that while, yes, Christ IS the image of God, there are others who BEAR the image of God. Mankind. Genesis 1:27 spells it out:
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
Think the Pharisees had a familiarity with this passage? You bet. And, not for nothing, but Matthew uses the same Greek word (“icon”) for “image” when he writes this Gospel as the Septuagint (the translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek done by and used by the Jews of that era) does for “image” in this passage of Genesis.
So already we have intimations about what the answer is going to be: people. Specifically, in the context of this passage, the people present and hearing Christ’s words at the time (though you could also include us by extension as we will see). But the strength of this answer only increases when we look into the second clue.
For this one we’re going to have to digress just a bit. But the payoff will be huge, so keep reading.
Go back in time with me. The Israelites have finished their forty years of wandering, and are about to enter into Canaan to finally take possession of the land. But first, they have to re-ratify their national constitution: their covenant with YHWH.
Hence the name for the book of Deuteronomy, which details the second giving of the Law.
Moses addresses the assembled Israelites as follows in chapter 6:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Verse 4 (“Hear, O Israel”) begins what is known to the Jews as the “Shema,” which also includes the verses that follow it in this quotation.
Think of it as having aspects of the Pledge of Allegiance (for a patriot, anyway) and the “Our Father” (the Lord’s prayer to Roman Catholics). Oft repeated, even as a barely audible prayer, and arguably the most widely memorized and spoken passage in the Jewish national and religious vernacular. The opening line calls Israel to acknowledge, a la the First Commandment, that for their nation there was to be only one God.
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.
Or, as I prefer, remembering that “the LORD” (all caps) is the way English translations render “YHWH” (out of respect for the divine Proper Name, following the piety of the Jews), this perfectly valid translation:
Hear, O Israel: YHWH is our God, YHWH alone.
As I said, this Shema—this Jewish creed—developed into the centerpiece of Jewish piety, and was frequently on the lips of the Jewish people of Jesus’ time (and even on those of Orthodox Jews today). See, for instance, Jesus’ answer to the scribe in Mark 12:29-30 regarding the greatest commandment:
Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’”
In fact, so much did the Jews revere the Shema that some of the more pious ones would write these verses on parchment and place them inside decorated boxes. They took God’s admonition to “bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes” literally and would tie these boxes, called phylacteries, upon their arms and foreheads.
The Pharisees Jesus was speaking to were most certainly wearing large, garish Phylacteries at the time of this conversation about taxes. We know this because, in the following chapter (Matthew 23), Jesus eviscerates the Pharisees for their false show of piety, saying:
The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long…
And as the Pharisees stand there, glaring at Christ from under their enshrined Shema scrolls, which claimed allegiance to YHWH alone as God, our Lord has the audacity to call them out.
These men, who are made in the image of God, upon whom is the inscription of God, are all the same not giving God the proper due with their behavior.
Bringing It All Together
So now we see Christ’s rhetorical prowess in full. That master of words not only utterly wrecked their trap, he also rebuked them using the full force of their piety to call out their unrighteous actions.
You getting why they wanted him dead?
All that said, we now have our answer:
A denarius is to Caesar
The Pharisees are to God
So then, render what unto God? One could answer to the Pharisees (not that there is a need, they got it AND MARVELED): “Proper glory and honor, the honor due his Messiah, and not this slinking around trying to trap him. It’s unbecoming, and you show more honor to Caesar in paying your taxes than you are showing to God in your actions here.”
No wonder Jesus excoriates them harshly to the crowds a handful of verses later.
And with that answer, a few more notes should be made in order to do full justice to this subject.
First, it’s interesting to think about which type of denarius Christ held as he asked about the image and inscription. It’s impossible to know with utmost confidence, but I like to think that this one (in use between around AD 14-37) is identical to the one Christ held.
Because of the wording of the inscription, which says “TI CAESAR DIVI AVG F AVGVSTVS.” Meaning: “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, Augustus.”
In other words, the coin makes the claim that Caesar is a god. The god of Rome.
Contrast this with the Shema scrolls inside the Phylacteries worn by the Pharisees, which claim that YHWH is God. And YHWH alone.
Sweet, sweet poetry.
Lastly, I want to explain why I think Christ’s comparison is perfectly apt for us Christians as well (as other pastors, to their credit, often assert). My reasoning can be shown as follows:
Bears Caesar’s Image
Bears Caesar’s Inscription
Bear God’s Image (Gen 1:27)
Bear God’s Inscription (Matt 23:5)
Bear God’s Image (Gen 1:27)
Bear God’s Inscription (Jer 31:31-34, which in part states of the New Covenant: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”)
In sum, just as it is sometimes said: we are the gold.
So act accordingly. You were bought at a price.
Christ, that masterful rhetorician, has won you.
Update 11/1/2017: After penning this article, I found another by Dr. Joel McDurmon that takes a similar view, but also expands upon other elements of the passage that I did not—such as the relevance of the location in which this challenge took place, the fact that the High Priest had his own inscription on his headdress, and why the Pharisees’ words “you do not care about anyone’s opinion” are not just mere flattery. Highly recommended reading.
Update 11/13/17: I’m re-listening to Dr. Michael Heiser’s “Naked Bible Podcast” series on Leviticus as I pen the next entry for my series on the Jewish law. He brought up something interesting in his episode on Leviticus 8 & 9 that ends up tying in with this passage in Matthew as well.
Heiser says (speaking of the inscription on the High Priest’s headdress):
So I think this is kind of interesting because it’s a very sort of literal bearing of the sacred name. One individual actually wears the name—he bears the name—of YWHW. But do you realize that, in a more abstract sense, every Israelite bore the name? Every Israelite carried the name, in an abstract sense…
This is something that often isn’t realized, but in Exodus 20, this is the Ten Commandments, verse 7 says:
You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
The word “take” there?…is נשא (nasa). It’s the same word for “to lift up,” or “carry,” or “bear.” So the command doesn’t actually refer to verbal swearing, okay. It refers to “bearing the name” not in vain. Not emptily. Not uselessly. Not worthlessly.
And what does “bearing the name” mean?
Bearing the name means you are sort of owned by God. You are God’s people. He is the name.
So there you have it: an inscription, if you will, spiritually borne by the hearers generally. Heiser goes on to talk about how Christians bear the name as well. Give it a listen from minute marks 33 to 39 for the whole section which, like the whole series, is extremely useful.
That said, this gets at the idea of the people at large—not only, nor even primarily, the Pharisees—being those who bear the image and inscription of God. Again, it does present a more “spiritualized” and less literal take on the inscription idea than what I talked about above. And there’s nothing wrong with that; after all, the image concept is surely spiritual and not literal (we don’t confess that being made in God’s image means that God is a bipedal anthropoid, after all—incarnation notwithstanding, see John 4:24), so it’s a valid take to see a more spiritual underpinning for the inscription as well.
In my case, I think a both/and understanding—sort of a double entendre between the literal inscription on the pharisees and the spiritual one borne by the people—makes complete sense.