According to historical accounts, 18th-century English poet Alexander Pope had an epigram engraved on the collar of a puppy that he then gave to Frederick, the Prince of Wales: “I am his highness’s dog at Kew; /Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?” Whenever I read Matthew 22:15-22 or the other synoptic versions of the story in this week’s Gospel reading, I’m reminded of Pope’s poem and its barbed question of ownership.
Living within society means existing within a web of oft-competing loyalties, striving to give each of our relationships and identities their due. The religious authorities of ancient Judea recognize this constant struggle, and they try to use it to trap Jesus between his national convictions and the necessities of survival in the Roman Empire. The tax in question was a poll tax levied by Procurator Quirinus in 6 C.E., used to by the imperial bureaucracy to gauge the resources of this far-flung, unusually troublesome province. It was immediately met with resistance, including an unsuccessful revolt and the eventual formation of the Zealot faction within Judean politics—the radical, mainly Galilean freedom fighters plotting to cast off the yoke of Roman control by any means necessary. As part of his growing flock, Jesus had attracted a number of Zealots (including the apostle Simon) hoping for a more martial messiah, and any support he offered for the tax risked alienating him from his followers and his home. However, any rejection of the tax, especially publicly, would be a treasonous offense. Either way he could obviously respond to their queries would brand him a traitor and almost definitely have disastrous consequences.
Jesus, of course, upends all expectations. Instead of openly endorsing or opposing the will of the empire, he quietly asks for a denarius, for the amount required to pay the tax. He then asks about “whose head” and “whose title” appears on the coin, which his opponents perplexedly admit are “the Emperor’s.” (A detail not emphasized by the Gospel writer is the Pharisees’ immediate ability to pull out the coin means that they keep money with a graven image on it about their persons, seemingly violating the 3rd commandment.) Christ deftly turns his clever escape into a teaching moment, voicing the line that has made this story famous and even gained a life of it’s own: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21) The problem is, we tend to focus on the first half of the sentence, worrying about giving to the emperor and, more traditionally, rendering unto Caesar—but the real weight of Jesus’ point rests in the second half. Give to God the things that are God’s. If you’re currently trying to puzzle out what things are God’s, I’d like to remind you of a line from the story of Creation and the very beginning of the Bible: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” (Genesis 1:26). You are God’s, stamped with the Divine likeness and image just as surely as Tiberius on that denarius. Christ isn’t trying to give his interlocutors pragmatic tax advice, he’s warning them that they’re forgetting their most fundamental relationship and identity. It can be so easy to disregard that God should be at the center of our lives, our faith mediating everything else about our social existence. All too often we forget that we are God’s, or we forget that someone else is God's.* Nothing we do and nothing done to us can change the truth of our glorious creation. Now we just have to live like it.
*Which should also say a good deal about the Biblical perspective on consent!