One of my Facebook friends was just lamenting that people she knew were unfriending folks who supported one political candidate or the other. She said, “You’d think that Christ followers would be able to remain friends on Facebook, no matter how they voted.”
As divisive and upsetting as this presidential election has been, it’s actually tame compared to the political climate of Jesus’ day. Palestine was an occupied Roman colony, and the Jews were deeply divided and passionate over what to do about it. Some thought it best to cooperate with the Romans. Religious conservatives thought it best to cooperate only on civil matters, but maintain Jewish religious purity. Others advocated rebellion.
Jesus didn’t fit into any category, so he was a threat to each group.
The collaborators and the conservatives—usually natural enemies—put a plan in place to discredit Jesus. They asked Jesus if it was right to pay taxes to Caesar. The answer was sure to set one group or another against him.
Jesus asked for one of the coins used to pay the tax. It’s called a “denarius,” or “tribute penny” similar to the one pictured above. The coins are inscribed in Latin, which translate “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.” Many Jews wouldn’t touch the coins. They considered them blasphemous because the inscription claimed that Caesar was a god.
Jesus’s answer, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” is the most famous pronouncement on the relationship between civil and religious authority in history.
The first part acknowledges that governments (even imperfect ones) do things to benefit their citizens: roads, bridges, water, police, and so on. The second part acknowledges there are things governments can’t do. Jesus would have us give to government and to God their due.
The coin may bear Caesar’s image, but every person bears God’s image.