To consolidate his power, the Roman Emperor had coins minted with his likeness engraved on it. These reminded the people to whom honour was due. Like his forebears, Tiberias, the Emperor at Jesus’ time, believed that he was divine, and proclaimed this on his coins. Each silver denarius was a command, not only to pay taxes, but also to worship the Emperor as god.
So it’s a surprise in today’s story when his enemies were setting a trap for Jesus, that one of them produced a denarius. A Jew who took seriously the commandments would not possess such a coin, and certainly not produce it in the Temple. The coin was a ‘graven image’, a blasphemous object.
As soon as Jesus asked. ‘Whose image is it, and whose title?’ (v. 20), a Jew would immediately recall both the scripture forbidding graven images (Exodus 20:4) and the passage teaching that human beings are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26).
So Jesus turns the question back onto the questioners. ‘Whose image is imprinted on you?’ Is it the Emperor’s, or is it God’s? Whom do you call on as God?
Because God had beat the Emperor to it. Every human being is like a coin. Each one of us bears God’s image. God sets us into circulation, and we should both recognise our family likeness in each other and acknowledge God as our common authority. Our task is like that of a coin which recognises the value of human labour. We too are to recognise the value of human beings in our interactions.
To be like circulating coins, we cannot remain pure and separate from the world. We must ‘pay back to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor’ (Matthew 22:21). For example, whether we like it or not, a sizeable proportion of our taxes buys weapons for war. When we buy a shirt, it is difficult not to exploit a worker in Bangladesh. We circulate in the world and are caught up in its compromises.
But through all this, we ‘pay God what is God’s’ (Matthew 22:21), we are to be the images of God in the world. People see us and should see something, some aspect, some likeness of God.