Jesus once said that “The Son of Man has no where to lay his head,” and apparently, he didn’t carry any pocket change either. Here, in the midst of yet another theological debate with the religious powers-that-be, this time the Pharisees and Herodians, Jesus turns the conversation on its head. They’ve asked him, you’ll recall, if it was proper for a Jew to pay taxes to Caesar, hoping that he’ll say “no” and be open to charges of treason or say “yes” and alienate most of his followers who were devout Jews who despised their Roman occupiers. Jesus, after calling out the questioners for the hypocrisy, delays his answer by first asking to look at the coin with which the tax had to be paid.
This tax, as any number of scholars will tell you, was the Census Tax, a one penny per person tax that had to be paid by every non-Roman citizen every year in order to help fund their own occupation (talk about insult to injury). Now, for the most part, Rome was fairly kind to the Jewish people. Romans loved old things, and Judaism was old, so they respected the religion and for the most part allowed the Jewish people to continue their worship of YWHW and the keeping of their own religious law. I said “for the most part” because in Sunday’s lesson, we find one glaring moment of disrespect.
Integral to that law were the 10 Commandments, which were handed down from God to Moses himself. Commandments 1 and 2 required 1) no worship of other gods and 2) no graven images or idols. Mostly, this was easy enough to handle, except when it came to paying the Census Tax. It had to be paid by way of a Roman Denarius, which looked like this:
The front carried the image/icon of Tiberius Caesar, Emperor of Rome, with the inscription “The August Tiberius Caesar, Son of the god Augustus.” The back shows the image/icon of a woman named Pax, the personified image of the Peace of Rome, and hails the Emperor as High Priest, pontifex maximus. There is nothing about this coin that doesn’t violate the first 2 of the Big 10 Rules.
Jesus, a good Jewish Rabbi, doesn’t have one of these coins. The Pharisees made their living keeping these coins out of the Temple. The Herodians, Jews who like Rome and who you’ll recall have buddied up to their archnemeses in the Pharisees? Well, you better believe they’ve got one. Right there in the middle of the Temple, they’ve got a blasphemous coin, ready to show to Jesus. What is striking is that Jesus doesn’t say “Aha! Gotcha!” He doesn’t gloat over them for having the coin. Instead, the uses it as a teaching moment. More on that tomorrow.