The Emperor’s Coin

"Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

Matthew 22:15-22

October 16, 2020, Words By: Lina Thompson, Image By: unknown

My sister does this funny thing before she asks you for a favor. She says, “I’m going to ask you something, but I want you to know that it’s a trap.” I appreciate that. It’s a good heads-up.

The people in this week’s scripture didn’t give Jesus that courtesy. Instead, they buttered him up with all kinds of flattery and then asked him a trick question. It was a well-laid trap.   

This is a Trap

It’s an interesting coalition of people approaching Jesus: the Herodians, who were kind of like a political group; and the disciples of the Pharisees, who were more like a religious group. They were actually political enemies, but joined forces to try and take down Jesus. It’s an interesting dynamic when two enemies find a common scapegoat, and a foreshadowing of things to come for Jesus. 

What was the trap exactly? What kind of pickle were they trying to put Jesus in?

The coalition of enemies sets their trap in the form of a simple question. They ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” While the question seems straightforward to us, it was actually highly charged. Regardless of his answer, it was bound to offend people ethically, politically, religiously, or some combination of those things. If Jesus said, “no,” to paying taxes, he would be denying Roman authority—a political crime. At that point, he would’ve been handed over to the empire. Case closed.

And if he answered, “yes,” many people would have seen him as unpatriotic, a traitor to his faith and his country, two things that were deeply tied together. 

It’s hard for us to “feel” the intensity of the moment in these verses. But I liken it to the kind of emotionally charged conversations that many of us are having these days. The kinds of conversations that put you in a “pickle” because your response can have severe consequences for your friendships, family relationships, your standing in your faith community, and maybe even your professional success. It can often feel like there is no good answer. 

In these situations, many of us either tend to withdraw or become argumentative. Either way, answering or not answering can be costly. And sometimes the “questioners” in our lives know this. And it feels like they can’t wait to pounce, regardless of what happens. 

The Third Way

Jesus sees beneath the trickery and calls it for what it is—hypocrisy. And instead of providing the “yes” or “no” response they are looking for, he offers a third way that surprises everyone.

Jesus asks to see the coin. And then he responds to their question with a question of his own: 

“Whose image is this and whose inscription?”

It’s important to note here that, as one commentator says, “coins functioned as instruments of propaganda which reminded users of the emperor’s political power and Rome’s status as the favored of the god’s. It was also a symbol of defeat and humiliation for subjugated people.” 

When the people answer that it is the emperor’s image on the coin, Jesus says, “Then give the emperor what belongs to the emperor and give to God what belongs to God.” 

Jesus’ skillful answer frees his audience from the binary trap and leads all of us to an even better question than whether we should pay our taxes: “What belongs to God?”

What Belongs to God?

Borrowing the metaphor of propaganda, Jesus seems to be asking what message is stamped into our lives? What or who bears God’s image? 

I can’t think of a better question to ask of the U.S. Church at this moment. What image or message do we bear in our everyday lives? Does it resemble the image of the God who suffered with those who suffer and took on the violence of the world so that we might live just and whole lives? Or does it resemble the propaganda of the empire that demands allegiance? I’m guessing it’s some combination of both. By God’s grace, may we move ever closer to believing we belong to God and that bearing God’s image is something God chose for us before we ever “chose” God.  

Hopefully this frees us to love. Hopefully it frees all of us from the entanglement that we often find ourselves in when it comes to conversations that are loaded with conflict. This freedom may help us to resist the temptation to always “argue” our point. It also may help us resist the temptation to withdraw from difficult conversations. Something in this story illuminates a different way—a third way that speaks the truth, disarms animosity and frees us to imagine what being peacemakers might look like in a time that desperately needs a bold and courageous vision of peace. 

About The Author

Lina Thompson