“Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But He detected their trickery and said to them, “Show Me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” And He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Luke 20:22-25 (NASB)
In the New Testament we read this famous account of the Pharisees trying to trick Jesus with the question about whether they should pay taxes to Caesar or not. They knew that either way he answered, yes or no, he would be in trouble.
The Roman coins were considered idolatrous by the Jews because they had the image of Caesar on them and, also, because Caesar proclaimed himself god. So, if Jesus said yes, he would be breaking the Mosaic Law. If Jesus said no, he would be breaking Roman law and could be arrested. He answered by saying, look, this coin has the image stamped on it of the one who owns it – so give it back to its owner. But, he said, give to God what is his. What did he mean by that?
In Jesus’ time there was something called the Mishnah, an oral tradition of the wisdom of the rabbis. It was later written down. But these sayings would have been known to Jesus’ learned challengers who were trying to ensnare him. One teaching, comparing stamped coins with people, is pretty amazing when applied to Jesus’ answer:
The mishna teaches: And this serves to tell of the greatness of the Holy One, Blessed be He, as when a person stamps several coins with one seal, they are all similar to each other. But the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, stamped all people with the seal of Adam the first man, as all are his offspring, and not one of them is similar to another. — Sanhedrin 38a:10
Applying this teaching you could say that we human beings are stamped with the image of God. “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness’ (Genesis 1:26). But unlike the Roman coins which were all stamped with the same image of Caesar, the stamps God puts on his human “coins” are all unique, revealing God’s inexhaustible power and creativity.
For we are God’s masterpiece. Ephesians 2:10 (NLT)
And when Jesus, pointing to the image, said, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s,” the teachers of the Law would have understood what he has saying to them. You have the image of God stamped on you. You are a human “coin” who belongs to God. Give that which is stamped with His image – yourself – completely to God. Give to Caesar what is stamped with his image.
This idea of human coins made me think of the parable that Jesus told of the woman who lost a coin and swept the house carefully, searching for it, until she found it. The insight of the rabbis gives this parable a totally different meaning for me, or a deeper meaning. Jesus told this story along with the parable of the lost sheep. Each human “coin” or “sheep” is precious to God, and he will tear the house apart, search high and low to recover one that is lost.
When an expert in the law asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was, he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind (Matthew 22:34-37).” That is giving to God what is God’s. But Jesus went further. He added, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He was commanding us to acknowledge the preciousness, the inestimable value, the unending diversity, and creativity revealed in the unique stamp of God’s image on each one of our brothers and sisters, each human coin, and love them – as God loves us.
Photo of Roman denarius by DrusMAX – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24408884