Let the Scriptures Speak
No Tax Break Here—
Whose image is this … ? (Mt 22:20)
There was once a cartoon by Tony Auth that shows our status today. He illustrated a roomful of partying politicians, elephantine and asinine. The legend declared, “At the Welfare ‘Reform’ Celebration ... ” Through a window you can see a forlorn youngster holding up a sign: “14 million American kids in poverty.” One of the pols notices and says, “Lighten up, kid. Nobody likes a sore loser.”
Taxes, and how they are used in today’s America, have always been a sensitive issue. The Pharisees and the Herodians are acutely aware of this when they approach Jesus with the question, “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” They figure they have him either way. Either a yes or a no answer will get Jesus in trouble. If he says no, they have grounds to accuse him of sedition before the procurator. On the other hand, a yes answer will make him unpopular with the people, who find the Roman tax burdensome. Jesus, however, refuses to give a yes or no answer. Instead, he calls for a denarius and asks whose image it carries. Hearing that it is Caesar's, he says, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
Most people, when they read or hear this response, think something like this: That is a clever answer, but now Jesus has left us with another difficult question: How do you sort out what is Caesar's and what is God’s?
But that reaction misses the point of Jesus’ remark. Lacking the cultural context, we miss two things. First, when Jesus asks for the coin (and one is promptly produced), he exposes the hypocrisy of his questioners. For any Jew who was sensitive to the demands of the Mosaic Law would not be carrying a coin embossed with the image of an emperor, pictured as divine. The bearer of such a “graven image” has already settled for himself the question of relating to the Roman Empire and its economy.
Second, Jesus' question about whose “image” the coin carries contains an allusion that most of us miss. If an image on something indicates authority and ownership, and Caesar's image on the coin implies the dominion of the empire, then what is it that bears God's image, indicating the ownership and dominion of God? Anyone, especially any Jew, knew that human beings are created in the image of God.
Thus Jesus' response is not a clever dodge. It is a confrontation. The world is not divided into one part for God (however large) and one part for Caesar (however small). All creation is, first of all, under God's sovereignty, especially human beings, who as God's image have a special role in stewarding the goods of creation. Then, within that context, one works out the smaller question of relating to the empire. Jesus' challenge to his adversaries, then, is that in refusing to deal with Jesus' truth, they are resisting the reign of God. They are failing to live out their roles as bearers of God's image.
The reading from Isaiah thus provides a powerful background for meditating on this Gospel. Isaiah presents the voice of God referring to another head of empire, Cyrus the Great, as his “anointed one.” This pagan emperor of the Persians earns that title because he, albeit unknowingly, has become God's instrument in the restoration of the exiled Judeans to their homeland. As in the action and words of Jesus in the Gospel, God's role as Creator of all is very much in the picture. Before and after this reading, the prophet speaks of God as
the Lord, who made all things,
who alone stretched out the heavens,
when I spread out the earth … " (Is 44:24)
made the earth
and created mankind upon it (Is 45:12).
Unlike Cyrus, the Pharisees and Herodians were failing to cooperate with the Creator of all.
Even in our own day, when our president addresses the question of taxation, we can suffer from amnesia regarding the image of God borne by all humanity. We live in a culture that easily divides the world into three parts—one part (as much as I myself can get) for me and mine; another part (as little as possible) for Caesar; and, oh yes, a third part (as much as is left over) for God. Jesus would remind us that as creatures made in God's image, we are to use taxes as a tool for seeing that the goods of the earth are used to meet the needs of all.
Not a popular notion at a time when the highest political value is not the common good but a tax break.
**From Saint Louis University