Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost; 18 October 2020; Proper 24A (RCL); Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22.
Modern scholarship has a hard time identifying the Herodians in this passage from Matthew. If they were, as the name implies, a sect that aligned itself with the rule of the Herods, it is unlikely that the Pharisees would make common cause with them. That aside, this challenge story comes after a string of parables clearly directed against the Jerusalem authorities. Whoever they are, Jesus’ interlocutors are trying to paint him seditious.
This story presents several interesting features. First, this takes place in the Temple, where it was unlawful to carry Roman currency in the Temple precincts. That’s why they have to go get the coin. But Jesus tricks them into breaking the rule. He’s already one up in this exchange. And then there is a problem with our translation. Jesus asks (according to the NRSV), “Whose head is this, and whose title?” What he says in the Greek is “Whose eikon (icon) is this, and whose epigraph (title)?”
The word eikon is important here. It means something like portrait or image. But it is also the word the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament — the bible that all the Gospel writers would have used) uses for image in the creation story, when God says, “Let us make humankind in our eikon, and after our likeness. . . And God created humankind in his image, male and female he made them.”
When Jesus asks “Whose image is this, and whose title?” he wants his hearers (or Matthew wants his readers) to connect the question to the creation story. They answer “Caesar’s,” and Jesus replies, “Give back, therefore, to Caesar the things of Caesar’s, and to God the things of God.” If the things of Caesar are those things that bear his image and his title, then the things of God are those things that bear the divine image and title.
Obviously, human beings (individual and as a community — God created the human being male and female) bear the divine image, and so must be given back to God. It has also been suggested that, in the particular context, Jesus is challenging the authorities to give back title to the land to God. The Temple authorities had made their compromise with their Roman overlords in order to keep the Temple cult running. They were extracting wealth from the people to pay off the Romans, which was subverting God’s purposes for the land, which was traditionally the primary locus of the relationship with God (sacrifices presented at the Temple were fruits of the land).
Jesus’ answer is challenging on several levels. The money economy belongs to Caesar — give it back to him. The human economy, the community, the land and its produce, human relationships, everything that falls under the rubric of righteousness, belongs to God. Small wonder that the religious and political authorities, who had made their deal with Rome, would be incensed at Jesus.
It is equally challenging to us today. Even more than the Roman Empire, we have succumbed to the seduction of the money economy. In ancient Israel, God held title to the land; humans were tenants. We now have the concept of private ownership, which requires, at least in principle, the threat of violence to protect ownership, and in the case of Europeans in America, required violence not only in principle.
We now measure our worth largely by what we own (at least in all of the theories that govern our interactions): Gross Domestic Product, Consumer Confidence, stock market averages — these are the things we measure. Jesus would tell us these belong to Caesar. I’m not sure we could as easily answer the question of what belongs to God. But if we are to offer our sacrifices of worship, it is a question we need to have always before us.