We all know what trick questions are, right? A trick question is one to which there is no good answer—or, to which the apparent answer leads you down a rabbit hole of misunderstanding and wordplay.
Here are a few examples of trick questions:
Q: How many months have 28 days in them?
A: They all do. (One month has exactly 28 days.)
Q: How many of each species did Moses bring on the ark?
A: None. Moses wasn’t on the ark; it was Noah.
Q: Why are 2007 pennies worth more than 2006 pennies?
A: Because 2007 pennies are worth $20.07, and 2006 pennies are worth $20.06.
Q: I have two coins, totaling thirty cents. One of them is not a nickel. What are they?
A: A quarter and a nickel; the quarter is not a nickel.
OK, this is all silliness. But sometimes, trick questions are not silly in the least. Sometimes they are posed with intention to do real harm. Jesus is asked a trick question about taxes, but the purpose is not to challenge his math or logic skills. The purpose is to trap him in giving an answer that will get him into real trouble.
Just to be clear, there is no easy parallel between the tax Jesus is being asked about and any tax we pay as citizens of the U. S. in the 21st century. This is not an income tax, nor is it a sales tax, nor is it a capital gains tax. The tax to Caesar is an annual head tax on every subject of Rome. It is a tax on all men from age fourteen and women from age twelve to age sixty-five and, the rate is one denarius per year. That’s one day’s wages for a laborer.[i]
Jesus is in the Temple, and not one, but two different groups, groups that do not normally get along or even associate with one another in any way, conspire together to trap him. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” seems to be the attitude of the Pharisees and the Herodians, at least for now. The Pharisees were members of a religious movement within Judaism that stressed strict observance of the law, especially around the matter of table fellowship. The Pharisees’ most pressing concern was usually, with whom should one keep company? How does one stay ritually pure? The Herodians, on the other hand, were also Jews, but those who seemed to be very comfortable collaborating with the Roman Empire. That, by definition, means that they normally flouted the kinds of laws the Pharisees held dear, and they aided the Romans in oppressing the Jewish people. The only thing these groups had in common, it would seem, was their mistrust of Jesus.
So they ask him a question. But first, they butter him up like an ear of late sweet corn. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality” [Matt. 22:16]. Oh, brother. Neither the Pharisees nor the Herodians see Jesus as quite the heroic ethicist this build-up would suggest. To the Pharisees, he’s a guy who consistently gets that table fellowship wrong by eating with anyone and everyone. To the Herodians he is a troublemaker, who is eager to point out the evils of Empire for the common woman and man.
Then they spring the question: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” [Matt. 22:17].
Now, the Pharisees and the Herodians have asked Jesus an excellent trick question, one in the vein of “Have you stopped beating your wife?”. If Jesus says a simple “Yes,” then the Pharisees can accuse him of consorting with Rome, the great enemy, and fracture the relationship between Jesus and the people. If Jesus says “No,” then the Herodians can accuse Jesus of being an insurrectionist, a crime punishable by crucifixion. In either case, Jesus loses.
But Jesus, instead of being backed into a corner by the question, asks for a denarius, the coin used to pay the tax. He asks whose head is on the coin—a poor translation for the actual word Jesus used, “image.” Whose image is on the coin, Jesus asks? His questioners respond, “Caesar.” That is true. Perhaps even more interesting than whose image is on the coin are the words found there. As an example, the coin minted during the reign of Tiberius read, “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest.” For Jews, the words were blasphemous. They amount to calling Caesar “son of god.”
Jesus knows this, and it may, perhaps, be one of his most brilliant moves that he asks for—and receives—one of these coins from a Pharisee. For a Pharisee to have been carrying the coin is, itself, a concession to blasphemy. The whole scene reeks of hypocrisy: the ones who are trying to trap Jesus have, themselves, been very nicely trapped.
So what are we to make of Jesus’ words? “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” [Matt. 22:21b]. Has Jesus managed to divide life up neatly into discrete piles, in which all things over here in this pile belong to God, and all things over there in that pile belong to the state? I am not sure. What do you think?
How do we figure out which things belong to God? On the subject of our giving, in support of the mission of the church, for example, what is the formula we should follow? I am not sure. I wonder what you think.
In order to begin to answer this question, it’s important for us to understand that question of Jesus’, “Whose image is on the coin?” It’s important for us to understand that word, “image,” and its significance, the role it played, and still plays, in Jewish and Christian theology. It is a word that appears in the very first chapter of the very first book in the Bible, when God, in the midst of creating, says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;” and then a few moments later, the narrator assures us that that is precisely what happened: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them…” [Genesis 1:26-27].
What do we give to Caesar? Those things stamped with Caesar’s image. What do we give to God? Those things stamped with God’s image. How do we figure out how to give ourselves to God? I’m not sure. I wonder what you think?
There is an old tale, which probably amounts to the early medieval version of an urban legend, but it is still instructive. It is about the Gauls, an ancient and warlike tribe of people who inhabited what we now know as France and Belgium. By the time of the Christian era, this Druidic people had come under the influence of the Roman Empire—the 4th and 5th centuries, probably. Christian missionaries spread throughout Europe and Asia, and the Gauls began to be converted in large numbers to Christianity.
However, when the Gauls were being baptized, so this story goes, the missionaries soon noticed they had one odd behavior. When they were being immersed in the river or stream, they would hold one arm up, out of the water, keeping it dry. The missionaries soon learned the reason for this strange custom. When the next battle broke out, the Gallic soldier could proclaim, “This arm is not baptized!” and grab his club or axe or sword and ride off to destroy his enemy.[ii]
As I said, this is most likely a myth. But it speaks to a very real tendency we have as humans to want to compartmentalize ourselves, to want to live as if our life is something we can place in discrete piles, in which all things over here in this pile belong to God, and all things over there in that pile belong to the other things to which I give allegiance. Is Jesus saying, in effect, we belong to God entirely? Is it true that everything that we have—money, talent, ambition, employment, family, you name it—everything is a gift from God, and something we should be giving back? I am not sure. I wonder what you think?
Earlier I gave our young people packages of beans and encouraged them to play a game with them, in which they tried to account for the hours in the day, and how many hours they gave to all different activities. Guess what? There are beans for you, too. Except, I am going to suggest a different game. You don’t have to play it now. But later on, when you have some time, I am going to suggest that you do indeed make piles with your beans. Each bean represents $100. You choose the timeframe—whether you will be working with a week, say, or a month, or a year. Place the beans in piles, representing how much you pledge and give away (whether to the church or to other charitable organizations), how much you have in savings, how much you owe to credit cards, how much you spend on monthly rent or mortgage payments, how much you spend on food, clothing and transportation, and how much you spend on entertainment and socializing. How does your balance look? Does it represent the balance of someone who is making their best effort to give to God the things that are God’s? I don’t know. I wonder what you think?
This is not a trick question; this is a question that deserves a real answer. There is no one right answer for everyone, though from ancient times the tithe, 10%, has been suggested as a great equalizer, a way to ensure that everyone is giving the same amount, no matter their income or their wealth. Is that right for you? Is that something you can aspire to? I am not sure. I wonder: what do you think?
Only you know how much you are giving back of yourself, that precious and unique gift of God, made in the divine image. Only you can navigate the complexities of what it means to be a one-of-a-kind mirror into the divine, and how you express that in all your activities of living. Only you can discern how to give to God what is God’s. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[ii] Mark Allan Powell, Giving to God: The Bible’s Good News About Living a Generous Life (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 2006), xi-xii.