In this week’s Gospel story, we hear that the Pharisees and the Herodians are getting together to try to trap Jesus. After some false-sounding flattery, the Pharisee and Herodian disciples ask Jesus whether it is lawful according to the Jewish law, the Torah, to pay taxes to the emperor. They try to set him up, to get him to say something that will anger either (or both!) the governing Roman authority or the ardent Jews who hate everything about the Romans.
A little bit of historical background may make this set-up a little easier to understand: Other than the fact that both the Pharisees and the Herodians saw Jesus as a threat to their causes – a threat to their status and claim to power – these two groups had little in common. They actually made quite strange partners! On the subject of Roman taxation they held distinctively opposing views.
The Herodians were supporters of the reign of the Herod dynasty, the Jewish client kings backed by the Romans. They ruled as the civil Kings of the Jews beginning roughly 100 years before Christ was born. Herodian rule in the region of Palestine continued for about a generation after Christ’s death. When it came to the issue of taxation in the region, the Herods collected the taxes for the Roman emperor adding bountifully to their coffers in the process.
The Pharisees on the other hand were at the top of the list of Jews who hated the Roman taxes. The tax in question was a poll tax – a tax pad by all males over 14 years of and females over twelve years of age – a tax based on a census taken periodically by the Roman government. It’s been estimated that a Jewish family of the time paid about 50% of their annual income to the occupying Roman government in taxes. Roman rule was extremely oppressive for the Jews living in Palestine during this era.
The other major problem the Pharisees had with the Roman tax was how the tax had to be paid – it had to be paid with a particular currency, the denarius, which was a silver coin stamped with the image of Caesar. This coin carried an inscription that proclaimed Tiberius Caesar to be the Son of the Divine Augusts as well as Pontifect Maximus or “high priest”. These titles staked out Caesar’s claim as both a political and religious ruler. The Pharisees along with most all Jews would have strongly objected to both the title and the idolatrous image on these coins.
There can be little doubt that the collusion of the Herodians and the Pharisees coming together to question Jesus about taxation is intended to trip him up. They approach Jesus using flattery – calling him “Teacher” (an address of respect) – acknowledging his sincerity and the Godly truth of his teaching. Ironically, what they say about Jesus – about his wisdom and ultimate integrity – is true even though they don’t really believe it! But their flattery gets them nowhere. Jesus sees through their ploy.
Jesus asks them for them for a coin, a denarius with Caesar’s image on it. Jesus doesn’t carry the coin very possibly because he, like all Jews, would have been offended by the image. This exposes the hypocrisy of the Pharisees who are carrying these coins. In asking for one of their coins he reminds them of the second commandment “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” The very possession of this coin makes them idolaters.
But Jesus, in his insight and wisdom, takes this opportunity for a more profound teaching. He rises above the worldliness of the question put to him. He uses the Roman coin as a teaching prop. “Whose head is this, and whose title? . . .Whose image . . . whose likeness?”
The imprint of Caesar identifies Caesar’s ownership of this coin. So Jesus says “Yes: give to Caesar that which is his. Give the coin bearing Caesar’s likeness back to Caesar.”
And then Jesus adds: But give to God the things that are God’s. Give to God that which God identifies as his own – that which God has minted in his image — that to which God imparts His image – that which exists and has it’s being in God’s likeness.
In Genesis we read: “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
You and I are made in God’s likeness – we reflect the image of God. God’s imprint on us identifies us as God’s Own. So perhaps in Jesus’ direction to give to God the things that are God’s, Jesus is implying oblation – giving of our selves – returning to God – giving our selves back to God.
So HOW can we give ourselves back to God?
In envisioning ourselves as the image of God, let’s consider a metaphor: Think of yourself as a mirror. As God gazes on you she sees her reflection – as if God is looking into a glass mirror. The image that God sees in the mirror becomes brighter . . . clearer . . . truer . . . as the mirror tilts and focuses to come more nearly into perfect alignment.
So then how can we return ourselves to God — How can we return a clear reflection that shines as God’s image?
– By aligning ourselves more perfectly through the prayer and response to God’s love – this is the work of oblation.
– By locking on to God — like tuning ourselves into a satellite broadcast — in continuous prayer and service – 24 hour a day transmission and reception
– And by allowing our selves to change and be changed in response to God’s love – tilting . . .and focusing . . . and readjusting . . to maintain optimum alignment and reception.
Is this idea of seeing ourselves as a mirror a bit far out – not much help in trying to live into a heartfelt desire to give of ourselves . . . trying to actually “practice” oblation?
It’s pretty clear and tangible how to give to Caesar that which is Caesars’ – how to give Caesar what he requires of you. Just use that coin bearing Caesar’s image to pay your earthly taxes and debts. But how do we give to God those things that are God’s? Speaking in more practical terms, how do we give ourselves to God?
Here’s a more down-to-earth approach to reflect on: The prophet Micah suggests a solid, grounded answer when he writes:
‘With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but
to do justice —
and to love kindness —
and to walk humbly with your God?