The Image of God
When the scribes and chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people.
Luke 20 : 19
Jesus arrived in Jerusalem for the week long Festival of Unleavened Bread or Passover. Even then it was an ancient spring festival with all kinds of ceremonies and observances taking place within the huge Temple courts. The city was overflowing with pilgrims from Galilee, Judah and cities around the empire. There was a fort next to the Temple garrisoned with extra troops brought in by Pontius Pilate. The crowds of worshippers could be excitable and lives easily lost in outbursts of religious enthusiasm. It was a time for caution.
Jesus stayed each night upon the Mount of Olives and came down each day to the Temple where in the courts he attracted large crowds with his teachings. One parable, The Wicked Tenants, was heard as a criticism of the religious leadership of the Temple, and along with Jesus' driving out the money changers, led them to plot to remove him. They decided to trap him with a question about the paying of taxes.
Mount of Olives c. 1899
So they watched him and sent spies who pretended to be honest, in order to trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor. So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you are right in what you say and teach, and you show deference to no one, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But he perceived their craftiness and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose head and whose title does it bear?” They said, “The emperor’s.” He said to them, “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were not able in the presence of the people to trap him by what he said; and being amazed by his answer, they became silent.
Luke 20 : 20 - 26
Olive tree from the Mount said to be two thousand years old.
The spies sent to trap Jesus flatter him by calling him 'Teacher' and encourage him to be bold and outspoken in his words - 'you show deference to no one'. Then they spring the trap with a question about paying taxes.
The payment of taxes for the Romans was a highly contentious issue and had been for decades. It caused bitter resentment and had led to public violence on numerous occassions. Jesus was surrounded by crowds eager to hear his repsonse - should we pay taxes to the emperor? If he said 'Yes' many would disagree with him strongly; he was already said to be a friend to hated tax-collectors; he was already beginning to lose followers; saying 'Yes' would help discredit and weaken him. But if Jesus said 'No' it could be heard as sedition and treason - a good reason for having him brought before Pilate, a man infamous for his brutal judgements. The trap was set and the surrounding crowds would want to know Jesus reply.
Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you?
John 6 : 61
From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
John 6 : 66
Tiberius (AD 14-37).
Silver Denarius, mint of Lugdunum.
But he perceived their craftiness and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose head and whose title does it bear?”
The denarius was a small silver coin which represented the daily payment for a labourer - enough to feed a family for a day. It had an engraving of the Emperor Tiberius and an inscription which read -
“Ti[berivs] Caesar Divi Avg[vsti] F[ilivs] Avgvstvs”
(“Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus”)
To orthodox Jews such as the Pharisees there was a double reason for not wishing to touch such a coin - not only did it have a graven image upon it, of the emperor, forbidden in Jewish law, it's inscription claimed his father, Augustus, was divine. Such coins had to be used in daily life but Pharisees would not want to be seen dealing with them.
By asking his critics to provide a denarius Jesus was putting them in an awkward position - you can imagine them looking at each other none wishing to reveal that they had such an unclean item in their purses.
When a denarius is produced and held up for all to see Jesus uttered the words we remember to this day
"Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's,
and unto God the things that are God's"
Jesus touched on something all those present would have understood. He asked -
'Whose image is on the coin?'
and the answer was, of course, that of the emperor.
'What bears the image of the emperor belongs to the emperor
and should be given to the emperor'
Then what is it that should be given to God? What is that that bears the image of God and so belongs to him? The answer is in the holy scriptures and the spies and Pharisees and the listening crowds would have quickly grasped what Jesus was saying.
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
Genesis 1 : 27
All were amazed at his answer and were silent.
At the heart of Jesus' teaching is the message that God is to be known as Abba - loving Father and that he loves us as any parent loves their own children. Throughout Jesus' teachings and the proclamation of the early church this is their overarching message -
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,
that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
John 3 : 16
This is how God showed his love among us:
He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.
1 John 4 : 9
Any parent will know and understand that what parents long for are signs that their children return their love. This is why parents are delighted when their children show that they do not take them for granted all the time.
Jesus' message to the worried crowds was that God knows what they need and is willing to give good things to those who ask him. This is why he told them not to worry or be anxious. And what does God ask of his children in return? Shortly after the question about paying taxes some Pharisees returned to Jesus with another question -
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart
and with all your soul and with all your mind.’
This is the first and greatest commandment.
Matthew 22 : 36
The God and Father of the Lord Jesus wants us to return his love.
We are made in his image and we belong to him.