Getting their start as separatists in post-Babylon Israel, the Pharisees originally set out to demonstrate a more faithful way: The Way of YHWH. In the years, since, their way fell into collusion with the growing thirst for influence. Pools of power having lured the Pharisees to dip their toes in waters of conspiracy. They team with the Herodian’s, partisan politicians of the house of Herod, to silence Jesus. The life and ministry of the Galilean was beginning to pose a distinct threat to powers intoxicated with privilege and control.
Forming a powerful conglomerate, the Pharisees and Herodians go in together to hunt Jesus, looking to ensnare him the same way an animal is led to a trap. The plan is to expose Jesus between two extremes by designing a question about the nature of the poll tax:
Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?
The trap is set in two directions. In one direction is the Zealot Way of denouncing the state and its pagan worship, thereby winning favor with the religious authorities but opening Jesus to arrest for inciting rebellion. The other direction is the Caesar Way of legitimizing the authority of the state as divine but breaking the laws of God that demand there is only one God. The Pharisees imagine with these two options that Jesus is stuck, either way leads to arrest. It is not hard to picture the religious leaders approaching Jesus with pride in their heart – the hunt is near the end, and they’re eager to catch their game.
As Jesus engages the question, his answer circumvents the trap set forward by partisan politicians and religious power plays. Jesus exposes the ironic hypocrisy of the Pharisees by calling for the presence of a coin. The Pharisees were likely not in possession of a Roman coin because carrying a coin of human likeness would go against Jewish tradition and custom. The return question is whose image does the coin bear? On a Roman coin, this is not a conspicuous question, it’s an arresting one.
The image bearer on the coin is obvious. It is Caesar, emblazoned with the language of empirical worship. On one side the coin reads, “Tiberius Caeser, son of the Divine August”. On the other side bore an image of high priest of the Roman religion. To whom does this coin belong? It belongs to the image of whom it bears. More precisely, Jesus responds, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s”.
While studying for this passage I went to a park and walked off the path until my feet stood near the slurry bank of a lake. As I thought about the Pharisee’s polarizing question, I found myself seeking the same clarity of the religious leaders. To which world do we belong? Caesar’s or the religious? I contemplated this passage between skipping rocks and listening to the water lap against the reeds. I was mostly alone. A crane grew restless and surprised me by taking off into flight; an impressive creature. Surrounding me was nature I neither created nor controlled, I was at the mercy of its economy. In the wilderness, I was in a house I didn’t build but a house that was built for me: for my sustenance, for my joy. A grace that is for me, and I receive of her grace. Most days I consume of her subconsciously taking without thinking, but today I am reminded of a creation that bears the image of its creator and its offering to me is a gift. I receive the gift and am moved to a place of peaceful revelation. I am at peace in the image of God as it is revealed in the Creator’s creation. We were made to bear the image of God, the image of peace, grace, and life.
In the woods, my eyes burst aflame at the changing seasons and the budding of fall. I am mesmerized at the contrast of the colors, and I can feel the sensation of my lungs drinking fresh air as my mouth thirsts for her water. The rays of the sun set against my skin and if for too long remind me of whose power I am subject. The whole time I pondered whose world do we belong the Spirit whispered through the reeds to receive of my Father’s world. To whom de we belong? To the one whose image we bear.
When the whole cosmos is the temple of our Father’s creativity, it sounds silly to ask whom we pay poll tax. For those that are wanting to imagine they run the world let them have it, their limited imagination robbing them of the peaceful revelation to rest, look, and receive. As Tertullian once said, ““Render to Caesar Caesar’s image, which is on the coin, and to God God’s image, which is on man.” To whom do we belong? We belong to the One whose image has been stamped upon our hearts and written into our very creation.
Jesus’ response evades the trap; it refuses to be snared by polarizing extremes. Instead, Jesus invites us to think and live eschatologically, as people who live under the earthly authority of the poll tax but bear a completely different image. We do not belong to the state, nor religious politics, we belong to God who cannot be snared by human traps. We belong to peace when violence is the only imagination that can be mustered. We belong to revelation when our vision has become co-opted by nation state politics. We belong to mercy when culture calls us to vengeance.
With Jesus’ answer, he invites us to boldly live in Caesar’s world while bearing witness to the image of whom we belong. We are image bearers. Not of Caesar but of God.
 Tertillian, Idolatry 15, quoted in Susan Grove Eastman, “Exegetical Perspective on Matthew 22:15–22,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year A, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, vol. 4 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 193.