The Tribute Money, Thomas Sully
In today’s gospel, we have an unholy alliance, of the Pharisees and the Herodians who come together against Jesus. The question they pose, innocent as it would seem – or maybe speculative – was politically explosive. The Roman tax was a constant reminder to the people of their enslavement. The bigger issue for pious Jews though, was idolatry. The Roman coin, the denarius, carried an image of Caesar, much like the pound carries that of the Queen. This violated the command against graven images (Ex 20:4). Worse, it had the words Divi Filius (Son of God) directly contravening the first commandment (Ex 20:3). The Jews were given some leeway, given these sensitivities. They could use their own coins for a number of transactions, especially in the temple, though Roman coins could not be altogether avoided. It was on this precise issue of taxation, that some time earlier, Judas from Galilee had led a rebellion against Rome. (The rebellion that would occur later, leading to the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, would again be about coinage.) The question was now being posed to another Galilean, Jesus, about paying taxes. The Pharisees – literally, the ‘separated ones’ – were those who were ‘separated’ from the crowds in their holiness and observance of the Law. If he said yes, the Pharisees would have denounced him to the Jews as a Roman sympathiser and a covert law-breaker. If he had said no, the Herodians would have latched on to him as inciting rebellion against Rome. Herod was a puppet king of Rome and not even a Jew. As such, he was illicit and no friend of the Jews in Jerusalem. The Herodians might have been Herod’s ministers or soldiers – it is unclear who they were. In normal times, these two parties, would be diametrically opposed to each other but they come together against Christ. They believe they have covered all their bases as they try to trap Jesus.
Jesus asks them to show him a coin. More than a simple visual aid, he has already exposed their hypocrisy. He is not carrying a denarius – but the holy Pharisees are. Which meant they were using it for their transactions. But here, in the Temple, these holy people were carrying the image of Caesar even as they accuse Jesus. And he tells them to give backto Caesar what is Caesar’s, even as he throws a twist at the end. ‘And give to God what belongs to God’. There is of course, plenty within that one line which substantiates the Catholic understanding of the spheres of political and divine rule. There is however, something much deeper.
The coin might bear the image of Caesar; but man was the image of God. In throwing back their question at them, Jesus also indicates a hidden fault in the Pharisees’ questioning. It is a view we easily succumb to. We tend to think of God as another Caesar. While men might compete for the goods of this world and seek power within this world, God wasn’t part of that competition. He is wholly Other. And man owed everything, himself to God.
If we view God as a taskmaster to whom we pay our taxes, our image of God is distorted. Caesar ruled through fear; he stood over and against you with his rule and power. God, on the other hand, is within us. He is the One who animates our being; without him we could not even exist. He dwells as the ground of our being and the fulfilment of our longing. Far from causing us to diminish, the more God reigns within us, the more we become ourselves: because we are created in his image. And the image seeks completion.
For the Eastern Church Fathers, this doctrine of image and likeness was foundational. You carried the image. You grew into likeness. You would become like God. This is the incredible hope and promise of baptism. We already use this in our everyday language. We will say to a parent – ‘she’s got your eyes!’ or ‘she is your spitting image!’. She could grow up and be told – ‘you’re so kind, just like your mother!’. It is equally possible, that she could have the eyes of her mother without her kindness! Image is a gift. It is our capacity for God, what propels us towards God. It is what makes us human. Likeness, though, is a choice – we have to cooperate with God’s Spirit to grow into it. So that ‘when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we shall see him as he really is.’ (1 John 3:2) And when we understand this, we do not need to be afraid of God. He has no desire to see us perish or suffer. The laws of God, the commandments, do not become tax that we pay, so as to keep God or anyone else happy. They are meant for our flourishing, because it’s rooted in the image we bear. Jesus revealed himself as the Way, the Truth, the Life. We don’t lie because the God we worship is Truth itself. We uphold the dignity of life from conception to death because life comes from God, Jesus is Life. We keep faith in our marriages because God is always faithful in his love – to the point of giving up his own Son on the cross. Anything else goes against who we are. It destroys the image – and our humanity. God did not randomly create a set of rules to make us miserable. Such a view shows that our image of God is somewhere along the lines of a cosmic Caesar lording it over us. The weight becomes unbearable. And having paid our taxes, we expect good service – much like how what we would expect from the government, be it trains or healthcare or anything else. We have a contract with God. If some suffering comes our way, we can become resentful, disappointed – ‘I was always a good catholic, why is this happening to me?’
If Christ Jesus dwells in a man as his friend and noble leader, that man can endure all things, for Christ helps and strengthens us and never abandons us. He is a true friend.– St Teresa of Jesus (Life, Ch. 22)
But if we knew the God who comes to us in friendship, the God who is within, of whom Augustine said, ‘You were within, and I was outside’, our lives would change. We could become fully ourselves. We could be free. We would know that the One who is greater than all loves us, and will never abandon us, because we are his image and likeness.