20Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”
I don’t know why our translators chose this expression, ‘head’, for the Greek word that comes into English as icon – though certainly ancient coins bore the visage of the emperor. At the time of Jesus, during the reign of Tiberius, they bore an inscription that declared: “Tiberius Caesar, Augustus, son of the divine Augustus, high priest.” This was the reason you couldn’t use these coins to pay your temple offerings, the reason there were moneychangers in the temple to convert these idolatrous coins into a proper currency to bring into the temple.
Curiously Jesus accusers have no problem coming up with this idolatrous coin.
But Jesus is not sucked into the argument about the coins. Nor is he sidetracked by the trap they have set for him: a trap that would force him to risk open rebellion or risk alienating his base. He has a much deeper concern.
This narrative hinges on the fact that Jesus uses the word ‘image’. This is the same word used in the Greek of Genesis where God says “let us make humankind in our image.” Jesus doesn’t use one of the words for a graven image, a statue, an idol; he uses the word that connects to Israel’s fundamental conviction that humanity bears the image of God – for this is the question at issue. The Herodians and the Pharisees are made in the image of God, and have they rendered to God what belongs to God? Or are they rendering to Caesar what belongs to God?
Jesus is not dividing life between our civic and religious responsibilities. It is important to say this, because we routinely divide church and state, politics and religion. Jesus is challenging his accusers about where they have placed their allegiance. They have sided with Rome, not God. They have sided with wealth and power and safety rather than with the God who bids them care for the poor and protect the weak. They have sided with the accumulation of great estates rather than the commands of God that guards every family’s lands. They serve the empires of this world, not the reign of God.
This is why in the Gospel of Luke the leaders tell Pilate that Jesus forbids the people to pay taxes to Caesar. They hear Jesus’ challenge and know that he is repudiating their allegiance to the world of Rome. It is not that Israel could not live under Roman rule; it’s that its leaders have committed themselves to the way of human empires rather than God’s reign of justice and mercy. They have chosen to be “of the world” not just in it. “You cannot serve God and mammon,” says Jesus. He does not mean that it is tricky to pull off, or that you should temper your desire for things. It’s that your fundamental allegiance cannot be to God and to wealth at the same time. We must choose: the way of wealth and power or the way of justice and love.
Which takes us back to the central question: in whose image was I made? Whose image will I bear?