By Marc Turnage
Jesus was a brilliant communicator. Although He used simple language, underneath His simple speech ran a learned sophistication that conveyed Jesus’ profound message. The unlearned in His audience enjoyed Jesus’ direct, simple message, but the learned members of His audience grasped the sophisticated message imbedded within His simple words.
Modern readers often miss many of the associations within Jesus’ words because they do not know their context. When we read the words of Jesus within their historical and cultural contexts, we can also grasp Jesus’ profound message.
Render to Caesar
The Gospels record how during the week before Passover the chief priests, elders, and teachers of the Law sent some Pharisees to question Jesus (Matthew 22:15–22; Mark 12:13–17; Luke 20:20–26). They asked Him, “Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Luke 20:22). Jesus had become a target for the chief priests because He criticized their abuse of power and corruption (cf. Matthew 21:33–46; Mark 12:1–12; Luke 19:45–48; 20:9–19). They could not take action against Him publically because of His popularity with the people (cf. Luke 19:47,48; 20:19). Therefore, they sought to entrap Him and accuse Him before Rome.
In the first century, as today, paying taxes indicated the subjugation of the people to a government. Roman taxation was the source of bitter conflict between the Jewish people and Rome. The Zealots, a revolutionary Jewish group, believed it was against the law of God for Jews to pay taxes to Rome. The first-century historian, Josephus, relates an episode that happened early in that century, in which Judas of Gamala (Acts 5:37) initiated an uprising of his countrymen in Galilee in response to the census of Quirinius, the governor of Coele-Syria (cf. Luke 2:2), who ordered the census for the purposes of taxation: “(Judah) incited his countrymen to revolt, upbraiding them as cowards for consenting to pay tribute to the Romans and tolerating mortal masters, after having God for their lord” (Jewish War 2:118).
When asked about paying taxes, Jesus responded, “Show me a denarius. Whose portrait and inscription are on it? … Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Luke 20:24,25). This demonstrates His creative genius as a communicator and His sensitivity to the difficult situation in which He found himself.
On the surface, Jesus’ answer seems like an evasion of the question. In fact, one wonders what He meant by His response. This confusion did not exist with His audience, however, because they would have picked up on the subtle association Jesus wanted to evoke in the heart of His listeners.
Jesus’ audience, many of whom knew the Old Testament by heart, would have recognized in His response a hint at the first appearance in the Bible of the word image: “In the image of God, he created him” (Genesis 1:27). Jesus’ real message was, “Render to Caesar that which bears his image, and to God that which bear His.” Jesus’ subtle use of the word image in His response recalls the importance Genesis 1:27 played in the worldview of the Jewish sages. They concluded that since every human bears the image of God, each person has intrinsic value.
Render to God
One of the great proponents of this view was the first century B.C. sage, Hillel. He once took leave of his disciples to bathe in the bathhouse. They inquired where he was going, to which he replied, “to perform a mitzvah (a religious commandment).” Hillel’s disciples questioned him how bathing performed a religious act. Hillel responded, “If the man appointed to the duty of securing and rinsing the statues of the king set up in the theaters and circuses is for that paid by maintenance, and, in addition, he is one of the government officials — how much more I, who have been created in the divine image and likeness, have a duty to care for my body” (Leviticus Rabbah 34:3).
The irony of Hillel’s response underscores his fundamental assumption of the intrinsic value of every person because each person bears God’s image. Because of this, Hillel concluded that the summary of all the commandments was the verse, “You shall love your neighbor who is like yourself” (Leviticus 19:18; b. Shabbat 31a; cf. Matthew 22:39,40; Romans 13:8; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8).
Because we all descend from Adam and therefore all bear the image of God, Jesus and the sages conclude that each person has a moral responsibility to his neighbor: “Therefore but a single man was created in the world, to teach that if any man has caused a single soul to perish Scripture imputes it to him as though he had caused a whole world to perish; and if any man saves alive a single soul Scripture imputes it to him as though he had saved alive a whole world ... for man stamps many coins with the one seal and they are all like one another; but the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be he, has stamped every man with the seal of the first man” (m. Sanhedrin 4:5; cf. Luke 6:9).
This conviction led to the corollary idea that in the way I treat another, who is like myself, God will act toward me: “Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray. Does anyone harbor anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? If one has no mercy toward another like himself, can he then seek pardon for his own sins? If a mere mortal harbors wrath, who will make an atoning sacrifice for his sins. ... Remember the commandments, and do not be angry with your neighbor, remember the covenant of the Most High, and overlook faults” (Ben Sira 28:2–5, 7; cf. Matthew 5:7; 6:14,15; 7:1,2).
Because every person bears the image of God, shedding of blood, even of the wicked, diminishes the divine image: “This tells that if one sheds blood it is accounted to him as though he diminished the divine image. To give a parable: A king of flesh and blood entered a province and the people set up portraits of him, made images of him, and struck coins in his honor. Later on they upset his portraits, broke his images, and defaced his coins, thus diminishing the likeness of the king. So also if one sheds blood it is accounted to him as though he had diminished the divine image” (Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael to Exodus 20:13).
The Zealots sought to advance God’s reign through violence and shedding blood. The sages responded to the worldview of the Zealots stating that only through repentance and obedience to God’s will (Matthew 6:10) can His reign be established.
During the First Jewish Revolt, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai saw the daughter of Nicodemus (John 3:1) plucking grains of barly from the dung of an Arab donkey. He mourned, “As long as Israel does the will of God, no nation or kingdom shall rule over it. But if they are not doing the will of God he will deliver them into the hand of the lowest nation and not only this, but under the legs of the beast of the lowest nation” (Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael to Exodus 19:1). Only by obeying the will of God could Israel remove from itself the yoke of foreign oppression: “Everyone who takes upon himself the yoke of the Torah removes from himself the yoke of the government and daily sorrows, but whoever removes the yoke of the Torah will be burdened with the yoke of government and daily sorrows” (m. Avot 3:6; cf. Matthew 11:28–30). In seeking to forcibly bring about the kingdom of God, the Zealots cast off the yoke of heaven: “The rulers of the cities of Judah, who have put off the yoke of Heaven and assumed the yoke of the kingdom of flesh and blood” (Avot de-Rabbi Nathan version A, 20).
Like His contemporaries, Jesus identified with the Jewish hopes of redemption, and added His voice to those calling on the people to repent and obediently submit to the will of God: This was the path to redemption (cf. Matthew 5:21; 11:28–30; Luke 11:27,28; 19:41,42; 22:24–27). Jesus’ rejoinder, “Render to Caesar that which bears his image, and to God that which bears His,” challenged those who sought to establish God’s reign with the sword, a kingdom of “flesh and blood.” His creative genius called on His hearers to recognize the value of every person because each bears the image of God.
Jesus’ audience grasped His direct challenge. Jesus was not an apocalyptic prophet, nor a pacifist; rather, He viewed the repentance of the people as an active catalyst that would move God to bring forth redemption: “Great is repentance, for it brings redemption near” (b. Yoma 88b). I wonder how different our world would look if we embodied Jesus’ message today.