Sometime during the last week of Jesus’ life, in what we now commemorate as Holy Week, he went to the temple and got into an argument over taxes.
(The more things change . . . )
The religious leaders were still licking their wounds from the last confrontation with Jesus a day or two earlier, when he had driven the merchants and the money changers from the temple courts — specifically, from the court of the Gentiles.
Roman money wasn’t allowed in the temple and had to be exchanged for temple coinage which could be used inside. By setting up shop in the one place reserved for Gentiles, the religious establishment managed to simultaneously line their pockets at the expense of the poor AND crowd out non-Jews from the temple.
Economic and ethnic exploitation. In what was thought to be the holiest place on earth.
Is it any wonder Jesus got angry?
Is it any wonder he engaged in a bit of performance art meant to symbolize the coming destruction of the temple? The “robber’s den” would give way to a new reality — to a new house of prayer. One for all nations. One for all those previously kept outside.
But the religious establishment would not go down without a fight.
So its leaders resorted to desperate measures. Pharisees teamed up with Herodians. (Think Fox News partnering with MSNBC.)
The Pharisees opposed Roman imperialism with every fiber of their being, while the Herodians, being more pragmatic (or opportunistic, depending on your point of view), freely collaborated with the Roman authorities.
Together the Pharisees and Herodians devised a trap for Jesus. Like the last confrontation, this one involved money.
“Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”
This was not a question about taxation in general. It was about one very particular tax. Every time the Jewish people paid the imperial tax, they were reminded of their subjugation and humiliation. This was tribute money, designed to enrich their oppressors while reinforcing exactly who was in charge.
If Jesus answered one way, the Pharisees would denounce him as a traitor to his own people. Answer the other way, and the Herodians would accuse him of inciting rebellion against Rome.
So Jesus asks for a coin. Specifically, a Roman denarius used to pay the imperial tax. On one side of this coin: the face of Tiberius, emperor of Rome. On the other, this inscription:
Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus.
(It’s not clear whether this exchange took place in the temple, but if it did, imagine the tension as one of the leaders reluctantly produced a coin — a coin which to carry in the temple would have bordered on idolatry.)
Jesus looks at the face and the inscription. Here he is, the Son of God — face to face with a rival to the throne. Not just any rival, but the emperor who kept Jesus’ people in subjugation and insisted on being worship as the son of a god.
“Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” Jesus demands.
“Caesar’s,” came the answer.
“Well, isn’t it obvious?” Jesus says (more or less). “The image and inscription belong to Caesar. Give it back to him.”
Jesus’ counsel was neither accommodation nor revolution but a far more subversive kind of defiance.
To hang onto the coin was to legitimize Caesar’s power and his claim to divinity. It was to become an accessory to oppression and idolatry, as the Herodians had.
But “give it back to Caesar” wasn’t Jesus’ only counsel. He also told the religious leaders to give “to God what is God’s.”
You see, the Pharisees and Herodians were equally guilty of hoarding power for themselves. The Herodians did it through collusion with Rome, while the Pharisees used religious law to keep people at arm’s length from God. One relied on self-serving political power, the other on self-serving religious power.
But there was only one true king, and it wasn’t Caesar. It wasn’t the religious establishment. As Jesus’ earlier confrontation in the temple revealed, the one true king would not use his power to oppress or exclude, but to bring all sorts of people to himself.
Any institution which caused oppression or exclusion — whether Caesar in Rome or the temple in Jerusalem — would not survive.
To walk alongside Jesus through Holy Week is to walk against oppression, injustice, and every form of exclusion. It is to confront the powers and institutions which perpetuate these things.
And it is also to remember: this was the path which ultimately cost Jesus his life.