This post is a late creation. With a 155th anniversary celebration on tap, a funeral to plan, and major transitions in play it has been very hard for me to settle, become still, and focus much energy and thoughts on the texts.
Jesus continues to answer the “who-is-this-man” question through the answering of the “by-whose-authority” questions. The parables that follow these questions are the answers which Jesus offers. We have seen a father and son example, a vineyard management example, a tossed guest via a vile party host example, and now Jesus offers a response on taxes (vv.16-17) to those plotting his demise/downfall/death (v.15).
The response comes to this question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” The tax is called the κῆνσος it s a Greek cognate of the Latin word “census.” It’s a tax paid by adults to the empire. And, there’s no indication that the tax was optional.
These plotters served that question to Jesus garnished in flattery, i.e., “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.”
The trap is set. Will Jesus show deference to the emperor or not? Will Jesus regard the emperor with partiality or not?
One can feel the suspense in the text. What will Jesus do?
He will re-frame the conversation. And he starts with this question, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” The Greek word in this text for hypocrites is ὑποκριταί. It is a compound word made of ὑπο and κριταί. The first word, ὑπο, means “under.” The second word, κριταί, is a form of the verb κρινῶ, which means “judge.” So a hypocrite is one who places someone or some thing under judgment. And these people literally place Jesus under judgment and as a consequence Jesus offers them another matter to judge. Jesus shifts the question from being about him to be being about identity….which, by the way, has been the core concern ever since Jesus entered the city, cleared the temple, and was encountered by the religious establishment.
It is all about identity…and from identity flows authority.
Jesus moves the focus from one of taxes to one of identity by saying, “Show me the coin used for the tax.” (v.19) The command to “show” gets answered by obedience. These leaders could have said, “Get your own pocket change out!” Nope. That’s not what happened. The hypocrites yield to the command of Jesus and showed him a denarius. Whether intentional or not, they obeyed his authority by bringing and showing him the denarius. In obeying his authority the plotters inadvertently offer a glimpse as to his identity.
What follows next is this series of identity questions and responses:
Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.” (NRSV)
Jesus effectively never answered the original question of the plotters. Instead, he became the “asker” of questions rather than the “answerer” of questions. And his final answer was about the form that human response should render to the authority that flows from identity.
None of this is about human morality, or discerning God’s will, or any such stuff. It is all about the identity and authority of Jesus.
We might be left ponder these questions:
Who is this Jesus—that even the Pharisees and other plotters obey him?
Who is this Jesus—that re-orders conversations without becoming a hypocrite–a placer of people under judgment?
Who is this Jesus—that reduces the debate to a matter of “who & whose?”
Perhaps this Jesus is the one whose image was “coined” on us in baptism—and whose non-judgmental image takes authority over and in all of our questions about self and others. Perhaps this Jesus challenges us “to give the emperor the things that are the emperor’s.” Perhaps this Jesus is the one that brings it all down to the identity of our true image, the one “coined” in baptism. Since Jesus is the image we bear, then perhaps all that tarnishes the image is what goes back to our emperor, and once it’s back with the emperor then all which remains is Jesus, right? For is that not all which was left in the end of the text anyhow…..didn’t the text say,”… they left him and went away,” right? They left him. So all that remained was Jesus….just Jesus….everything went back to its place…and what remained was Jesus.