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  • Writer's pictureFr. Scott Haynes

Render unto Caesar

Fr. Scott Haynes

A Meditation upon St. Matthew 18:23-35

At that time, the Pharisees went and consulted among themselves, how to ensnare Jesus in His speech. And they send to Him their disciples, with the Herodians, saying: Master, we know that Thou art a true speaker, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest Thou for any man, for Thou dost not regard the person of the men. Tell us therefore, what dost Thou think? It is lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not? But Jesus knowing their wickedness, said: Why do you tempt Me, ye hypocrites? Show me the coin of the tribute. And they offered Him a penny. And Jesus saith to them: Whose image and superscription is this? They say to Him: Cæsar’s. Then He saith to them: Render therefore to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.

Today’s Gospel paints a scene where a plot is made to trap Jesus. The Pharisees and the Herodians [1] approach Jesus with their questioners. They begin with false flattery:
“Master, we know that you are a true speaker and teach the way of God in truth.”
They want to force Jesus to answer the question, because if Jesus refuses, He will lose credibility as a Rabbi with the very people who just proclaimed Him a King; and they force Jesus to base this answer in the Scriptures to test His scriptural knowledge. They hope to discredit Him and box Jesus into a corner. They ask a question that is at once both malevolent and brilliant:
“Is it lawful to give tribute to Cæsar, or not?” In other words, is it licit under the Torah to pay taxes to pagan Roman empire?

If Jesus says that it is lawful to pay the tribute, He would set Himself up as an enemy of Israel, colluding with Cæsar. But if Christ says that Jews should not pay the tribute tax to Cæsar, they can use this to brand Jesus as an enemy of Cæsar. Jesus sees the trap. He calls them out:
“Why do you test Me, you hypocrites?”
He refuses to be dragged into their political trap. He does not take the bait. And he simply asks:
“Show Me the coin of the tribute.”

These questioners produce the coin of the tribute—the denarius [2] — a coin that was 3.9 grams of silver, that was worth a day’s wages for a common laborer. The denarius in question would have been issued by the Emperor Tiberius Cæsar, [3] whose was in power. The denarius was truly Caesar’s property: it was the currency used to pay soldiers, officials, and suppliers; it bore the imperial seal; it differed from the copper coins issued by the Roman Senate.

The denarius coin was the one people were expected to use to pay Caesar the tribute tax. On the coin, Tiberius Caesar proclaimed his divinity, and so he made it a capital crime to carry any coin stamped with his image into a bathroom or a brothel. Caesar’s coin was a tangible representation of his power, wealth, deification, and subjugation.

Interestingly, this scene takes place in the Temple. As the Pharisees and Herodians stand around Jesus trying to trap Him with questions, Christ says:
“Show Me the coin of the tribute.”
Without realizing it, they fall into His trap. There, in the most holy Temple of the Lord, this band of malicious men produce the denarius, Cæsar’s tribute.

They have profaned God’s Temple by bring in the coin of the pagan Roman emperor—the coin that proclaims the divinity of Caesar—into the Temple of Living God. Before the crowd that has gathered around, they reveal their religious hypocrisy and at once their credibility is shattered. Because of their pride, they don’t see their own hypocrisy, and so the Lord poses a counter-question:
“Whose image and inscription is this?”
Following rabbinical tradition of that time, Jesus employs a pattern of formal rhetoric to establish His authority as a rabbi. Because their hostile question was a direct challenge to Jesus’ authority as a rabbi on a point of law, His interrogators would have expected a counter-question grounded in the Torah. In Christ’s counter-question, two words, “image” and “inscription,” provide the scriptural basis for this question of law which harken to two central provisions in the Torah, namely the First Commandment and the prayer, Shema. [4]

The First Commandment prohibits worship of anyone or anything but God, and it also forbids crafting any image of a false god for adoration:
“I am the Lord thy God…Thou shalt not have strange gods before me.”
Jesus’ use of the word, “image,” in the counter-question points out how their possession of and use of Caesar’s denarius is a violation of the First Commandment, because this coin proclaims Cæsar as a god. Jesus’ use of the word “inscription” alludes to the Shema, the Jewish prayer taken from the Book of Deuteronomy and Numbers:
“Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”
This opening line of the Shema, stresses Israel’s worship of God to the exclusion of all other gods. The Shema commands a person to love God with his whole heart, whole soul, and whole strength, and to shun all false gods—even the Cæsar of Rome.

It is noteworthy that when Satan tempts Jesus by offering Him all the kingdoms of the [Roman] empire in exchange for His worship, Jesus rebukes Satan by quoting the Shema. In his rebuke of the Pharisees and Herodians Christ is calling them to obey the commandments and forsake all false gods.

The front of the denarius coin shows a profiled bust of Tiberius crowned with the laurels of victory and divinity. Circumscribed around Tiberius is the text:
“Tiberius Caesar, Worshipful Son of the God, Augustus.”
On the obverse side sits the Roman goddess of peace, “Pax,” and circumscribed around her is the text, “Pontifex Maximus,” which, in turn, means, “High Priest.” The coin of the Tribute Episode is a fine specimen of Roman propaganda. It imposes the cult of emperor worship and asserts Cæsar’s sovereignty upon all who transact with it.

In the most richly ironic passage in the entire Bible, all three synoptic Gospels depict the Son of God and the High Priest of Peace, newly proclaimed by His people to be a King, holding the tiny silver denarius of Caesar who claims to be the son of a god and the high priest of Roman peace. The true Son of God, and the Eternal High Priest of the Temple of Heaven in contrast to the counterfeit.

The Lord says:
“Render therefore unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, and unto God, the things that are God’s.”
Scripture describes the response of these iniquitous men:
“When they heard this, they were amazed. So, they left him and went away.”
They dared not ask Him any more questions.

Thus, the question arises, what is God’s and what is Cæsar’s. In the Hebrew tradition, everything belongs to God by right. God is the Creator of heaven and earth. The Psalms proclaim,
“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.”
By using the words, “image and inscription,” Jesus has already reminded His interrogators that God was owed exclusive allegiance and total love and worship. The Psalmist proclaims:
“Know that the Lord Himself is God; It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.”

Caesar, on the other hand, also claimed that all people and things in the empire rightfully belonged to him. The denarius coin notified everyone who transacted with it that the emperor demanded exclusive allegiance. The paying of the tribute tax showed at least the pretense of worship — as those who paid tribute honored Tiberius Cæsar as a god.

The coin bearing the image and likeness of Cæsar reminds us that governments come and go. The Roman empire lasted centuries. It seemed it would last forever. But it has vanished. Nations rise and fall. Tiberius Cæsar reigned 23 years. Every earthly ruler dies (whether he is Cæsar, King, Prince, President, or Pope). So, Scripture teaches:
“Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear...”
No earthly leader should exalt himself over his fellow men, or elevate himself as god, because there is but one true God, the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. And His rule stretches from eternity to eternity.
The bottom line of all this is the necessary distinction between who God is and who man is. As members of society, we must work together for the common good of all. But our leaders are here not to rule over us as if gods, calling us to pay them tribute. But Christ, in His humility teaches us, “to reign is to serve” (Cui Servire Regnare est). This, my friends, is the kingdom of truth and life, the kingdom of holiness and grace, the kingdom of justice, love and peace—the kingdom we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer:
“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth (even now) as it is in heaven.”

My dear friends in Christ, consider your dignity. Each of you has been made in the image of God. The Finger of God [5] has written the law of his love on your heart. Render unto Cæsar the penny which has Cæsar’s image. Be a good citizen, a kind neighbor, make a positive contribution in society. But render unto God the soul which He created after His own image and likeness. Worship God and Him alone.


[1] At the time of Jesus, there were certain groups—the Pharisees, the Herodians, and the Sadducees—that held positions of authority and power over the people. Other groups were the Sanhedrin, the scribes, and the lawyers. Each of these groups held power in either religious or political matters. The Herodians held political power, and most scholars believe that they were a political party that supported King Herod Antipas, the Roman Empire’s ruler over much of the land of the Jews from 4 BC to 39 AD. The Herodians favored submitting to the Herodian Kings, and therefore to Rome, for political expediency. This support of Herod compromised Jewish independence in the minds of the Pharisees, making it difficult for the Herodians and Pharisees to unite and agree on anything. But one thing did unite them—opposing Jesus. Herod himself wanted Jesus dead (Luke 13:31), and the Pharisees had already hatched plots against Him (John 11:53), so they joined efforts to achieve their common goal.

[2] The denarius was the standard Roman silver coin from its introduction in the Second Punic War c. 211 BC to the reign of Gordian III (238–244 AD), when it was gradually replaced by the Antoninianus. It continued to be minted in very small quantities, likely for ceremonial purposes, until and through the tetrarchy (293–313). The word denarius is derived from the Latin deni “containing ten,” as its value was originally of 10 assarii (a bronze, and later copper, coin used during the Roman Republic and Roman Empire).

[3] Tiberius Caesar Augustus (42 B.C. – 37 A.D.) was the second Roman emperor, reigning from 14–37 A.D. He succeeded his stepfather, Augustus. Tiberius was one of the greatest Roman generals; his conquest of Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and (temporarily) parts of Germania laid the foundations for the northern frontier. Even so, he came to be remembered as a dark, reclusive and sombre ruler who never really desired to be emperor; Pliny the Elder called him “the gloomiest of men.” After the death of his son Drusus Julius Cæsar in 23 A.D., Tiberius became more reclusive and aloof. In 26 A.D., he removed himself from Rome and left administration largely in the hands of his unscrupulous Praetorian prefects Sejanus and Naevius Sutorius Macro. When Tiberius died, he was succeeded by his grand-nephew and adopted grandson, Caligula.

[4] Shema Israel (“Hear, O Israel”) is a Jewish prayer that serves as a centerpiece of the morning and evening Jewish prayer services. The first verse encapsulates the monotheistic essence of Judaism: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4).

[5] Reading Exodus 8:16–20, we see that the Lord punished the Egyptians with plague by the “Finger of God” when they would not let His people go; in Exodus 31:18 and Deuteronomy 9:10, the Ten Commandments, brought down from biblical Mount Sinai by Moses, were written on tablets of stone by the “Finger of God”; and at Belshazzar’s Feast in Daniel 5, when Sacred Scripture reports “fingers of a man’s hand” wrote on the wall: “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.” The frightening appearance gave rise to the modern expression “the handwriting on the wall,” and reminds us of omnipotent power of the “Finger of God.” The imagery of the “Finger of God” is also used by Jesus to prove that He did not cast out demons by the power of Beelzebub. He said, “But if it is by the Finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Luke 11:20). In the New Testament story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery, Jesus writes in the dust of the earth with His finger (John 8:6). At his Angelus address on March 21, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI notes from St. Augustine that this gesture can be seen as portraying Christ as the divine legislator; Jesus’ actions in writing in the dust are redolent of the Finger of God writing the Law on tablets of stone. It was also used once by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke to describe how he had cast out demons. The medieval hymn, Veni Creator Spiritus, written by Rabanus Maurus (c. 776-856) mentions the “finger of the paternal right hand” (digitus paternae dexterae) in its third verse. It is widely thought that this phrase of the Veni Creator inspired Michelangelo’s painting in the Sistine Chapel where God’s right arm is outstretched to impart the spark of life from His own finger into that of Adam, whose left arm is extended in a pose mirroring God’s, a reminder that man is created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26).


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