As Jesus approached the massive marble columns of the Temple he was surrounded by the crowds gathered there for Passover. He dismounted from his little burro, gave the animal a gentle pat on the rump, and soulfully started up the steps.
Almost immediately he was approached by an aggressive, opportunistic businessman, “Step right this way! I can tell you’re from out of town so let me be of service to you before you go into the Temple. Those Roman coins in your pocket won’t do you any good here. They have a picture of Caesar on them and some of them even claim Caesar is a god. That won’t do here! Moses’ first Commandment expressly forbids the making of a graven image. No Roman coins here, so step right over to my humble booth and I’ll help you out by exchanging those idol-worshiping coins for some good Jewish money.”
Jesus couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He ignored the incessant chattering of the little man and let his eyes drink in the scene swirling around him in the Temple courtyard: Moneychangers were in their kiosks and the plaintive sounds of animals was almost overpowering. Lambs bleated loudly, and the doves cooed nervously as they were sold at outrageous prices to be slaughtered in the Temple as sacrifices for worship.
Suddenly the sense of holy desecration was overwhelming. With fire in his eyes, he grabbed the first table he encountered and flung it so violently it smashed apart spilling its contents on the ground. The crowd froze in stunned silence. Seizing a whip, he sent the vendors and their animals scurrying and at the top of his lungs he shouted: “This is supposed to be a place where people pray! Instead, you’ve turned it into a place where people get robbed!”
The next day, Matthew tells us, the Pharisees (the Jewish opponents to Jesus) plotted their trap by forcing him to answer their trick questions about authority. So, they sent their zealous young disciples to ask him, “Teacher, we know you’re sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with the truth, and we know you show deference to no one. Tell us then, is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”
Jesus knew what they were sent to do. He knew they were up to no good. “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?” he answered them. “Show me the coin you use for the tax.” One in the group immediately produced a denarius. Looking at the coin, Jesus asked, “Whose image do you see on this coin?”
The trap set for Jesus was sprung instead on them. “The President’s, some coins have Washington’s image, others have Jefferson’s or Lincoln’s,” they meekly answered.
“Then give to the Treasury the things that are the government’s, and give to God the things that are God’s,” he said in reply.
“Show me a coin,” Jesus said to them. And one of the Pharisee’s willing acolytes fumbled in his pocket and fished out a Roman coin and gave it to him. Interesting, isn’t it, when Jesus asked for a coin, they didn’t have Jewish coins in their pockets, but coins with the graven image of the emperor who claimed to be divine?
Some have preached these words as a lesson that articulates the appreciable difference between Christian belief and patriotism. How is it we hold in tension the twin realities of our identity as Christ’s followers while also being proud citizens of the state?
How do Christian believers keep the balance between religious practice and the commitment we have to have a society where everyone’s faith is respected equally? We hear a lot these days about the political power (clout) we have in our time and the issue of ultimate allegiance seems as relevant as ever. How do we strike the proper balance between our allegiance to God and using our political power as Christians without bankrupting our faith in the process?
We see in many churches’ flagrant displays where the American flag adorns the altars of our worship or forms the backdrop behind the pulpits in our sanctuaries of worship. We have a right to ask the question: “Whose kingdom reigns here?” Being a Christian in America raises the question of “What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus and a citizen of the most powerful nation in the world?”
Many Christians in this country have a nationalized faith that merges American patriotism with divine favor. That merger is one in which all our national endeavors are understood as the exercising of divine right. It’s a merger in which every action of our country is understood as an extension of God’s reign and power in the world.
Others hear this story as Jesus’ principle that guides everything about our lives as we entertain the idea we would consider how we might give back to God in response to God’s generosity. We are drawn into the question of how we might make generous our response to every aspect of life.
“Show me a coin,” he said to them. “Whose image is on the coin?” Jesus’ use of the word “image” is intriguing here. It was the word, eikon, the same word used in Genesis 1 to describe the eikon of God stamped on every human soul. The Greek word e-i-k-o-n is the word that we derive our current word icon, meaning “image” or “likeness.”
/ (ˈaɪkɒn) /
1. a variant spelling of icon
“Whose eikon is on the coin?” Jesus asked the young religious disciples sent by the Pharisees. “It is the eikon of Caesar,” they answered.
And Jesus said, “Then give to Caesar that which bears the eikon of Caesar.” The coins might be under Caesar’s control, Jesus reasoned, but people who bear the eikon of God should be under God’s control, not under the domination of the culture that wants to mar that original image by compromising the allegiance meant for God alone.
“Show me a coin,” he said to them. Jesus held up a coin and challenged them over the issue of ultimate authority. Then he turned the tables on them by challenging the idolatry that had ensnared them and was keeping them from the truth. When religion crawls into bed with the state, it does neither one much good. Likewise, when the culture of narcissistic greed overwhelms us, we are unable to serve God with our gifts to God’s work.
Being followers of God means we’re all-in to support the kingdom of God.
Jesus asked those who questioned him “Render unto Caesar all those things that are Caesar’s, but render unto God all those things that are God’s.”
It was a good question then and it is the right question today.
© Keith D. Herron, 2023
 Introduction adapted from a scene described in “A Word To and About Children,” by Lib McGregor Simmons, University Presbyterian Church, San Antonio, Texas, 10/17/99