This question, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” comes directly in response to the trap set by the Pharisees and executed by the Herodians against Christ in the gospel. But the question goes deeper than what is presented before us and warrants us to contemplate not just on Caesar’s image on the coin but on whose image we reflect.
God makes known through the prophet Isaiah, in the first reading, that the Israelites are made in his image. Finding themselves exiled in Babylon, the Israelites are beginning to forget their origin. In their exile, they lose lands and other possessions; things are tough. They start mistaking the Babylonian god (Marduk) as the solution to their problems. They start imagining him as more powerful than the true God of their ancestors. God intervenes through Cyrus, the King of Persia, to deliver them. Cyrus is God’s anointed, His agent for the liberation of Israel. But the people fail to realize that. Thus, God declares, “I have called you by your name, giving you a title, though you knew me not. I am the Lord and there is no other, there is no God besides me.” God reminds the Israelites here, that he cares for humanity made in his image and likeness. He always saves his own.
Growing up in African culture with residues of fetish and superstitious practices back then, the gospel passage of today used to be misinterpreted. Some weak Catholics and Christians will cite the quotation, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” as a compromise and an attempt to justify their idolatrous behavior. If for example, someone is sick and consults the native doctor, they will say, “But Christ says we should give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” Some Christians who give bribes to secure jobs or political offices will cite the same passage. So, the idea of giving Caesar what belongs to him and giving God what belongs to Him can become an alibi to place worldly things side by side with spiritual values as if God and Caesar are competitors. Christ’s message counters this mentality.
The Pharisees and the Herodians are trapping Christ to make a choice between God and Caesar in the gospel. They use such a sensitive issue of allegiance to Caesar. The Jewish people are oppressed by Rome. They hate the Romans and are waiting for the messiah to free them. In Jewish law, the use of graven images is considered a great sin. Jesus uses this to point out their own hypocrisy. In their time too, there are two opposing camps: the Pharisees and some Jewish nationalists who resist Roman rule and the Herodians who are Caesar’s subjects. Ironically, both parties agree on one thing, to entrap Christ, so they use their disagreement as a meeting point to orchestrate their evil plans. They collude to present what looks like the devil’s alternative. Either way, they will accuse him, “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” On their part, the Pharisees will be offended if Jesus acknowledges Caesar’s authority whereas the Herodians, on the other hand, will be offended if Jesus opposes Caesar. But the question we might ask here is what the Pharisees and these Herodians had been doing before now. Haven’t they been paying tax to Caesar? Why would Jesus be the one to arbitrate in a socio-political matter like this?
Jesus knows their thoughts, so, he calls them out, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?” Jesus reprimands their lack of authenticity, their flattery, and insincerity. He knows that they are testing him and he answers wisely; civil authorities have their position which shouldn’t conflict with ecclesiastical powers. Jesus is always the best of lawyers and brilliantly responds, “Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Of course, the coin itself is a graven image according to Jewish law because it’s imprinted with the head of Caesar. They’re religious authorities asking about paying Roman taxes using a Roman coin. Their trick question back-fires. No one should substitute divine power while acknowledging constituted authorities. To pay taxes and dues that support development is a noble civic duty. That’s what belongs to Caesar. That’s the meaning of the inscription on the coin. Caesar represents governance which serves the common good. Caesar’s image on the coin stands for human authority. Caesar should be a symbol of healthy socio-economic and political power approved by God to administer creation in a way that demonstrates God's care. But to compromise our Christian faith because of worldly attraction is hypocrisy. Jesus will always call us out on such an act.
Here, Christ takes the Herodians to task. It’s not just about paying the temple tax to Caesar as it is about having the right priority, the proper values in our lives. Our primary obligation is the worship due to God. Christ says, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Matt. 22:21). Civil obligations belong to the realm of Caesar whereas religious commitment belongs to God. However, the two are not opposed. We have an election coming up and have an obligation to bring God to the ballot box by bringing our well-formed conscience to voting. The CCC tells us: “Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings. So we don’t judge according to our conscience but according to our well-formed conscience. God and civil authority work together. (CCC 1783)
Though Caesar commands human influence, God’s authority is supreme. To Caesar belongs the coin, but about God, the Psalmist declares, “For the LORD is the great God, the great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land. Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care” (Ps. 95:3-7). Christ calls our attention to the first commandment today, “I am the Lord your God and there is no other, there is no God besides me” (Is. 45:4-5).
What is our attitude towards the first commandment? Do we worship God as supreme and no other? And what is our attitude towards money and power? Do we pursue these as if that’s all we’ve got to live for? The image of Caesar on the coin can represent the inordinate pursuit of money, power, and fame. We might become attached to the “coin” at the expense of our faith. When we idolize money, power, and fame, we go against the first commandment. Then we compromise our own image, we function as if we are Caesar’s image and not God’s.
A more fundamental question for us today is, whose image is imprinted on our soul? The Bible says, “In the image of God he created him, male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). Reminding ourselves of whose image we are created is crucial because we must uphold God’s image; no compromise. God’s image in us demands that we value and defend the sanctity of life. It demands that we act in love and justice. It demands that we promote the dignity of creation in a way that depicts it as God’s design. It can never be Caesar or God, rather Caesar for God because human authorities are subject to Him. Caesar belongs to God. Empires belong to God. Power belongs to God. Authorities belong to God. The Psalm reminds us, “Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns.” The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity” (Ps. 96:10). And you know what, it’s God or no Caesar at all!