San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission - Carmel, California (author's photo)
And the chief priests and the scribes that very hour sought to lay hands on Him, but they feared the people--for they knew that He had spoken this parable against them. So they watched Him and sent spies who pretended to be righteous, that they might seize on His words, in order to deliver Him to the power and the authority of the governor. Then they asked Him, saying, "Teacher, we know that You say and teach rightly, and You do not show personal favoritism, but teach the way of God in truth: Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" But He perceived their craftiness, and said to them, "Why do you test Me? Show Me a denarius. Whose image and inscription does it have?" They answered and said, "Caesar's." He said to them, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." But they could not catch Him in His words in the presence of the people. And they marveled at His answer and kept silent.
- Luke 20:19-26
Jesus is now in Jerusalem and it is Holy Week, the week of His Passion. He entered the city as Messiah in His Triumphal Entry. He wept over the city, lamenting its lack of peace. His next act was to cleanse the temple, and then we are told He was teaching and preaching the gospel daily in the templeHe cleansed the temple and was daily teaching and preaching the gospel in the temple. He was grilled by the temple leadership who asked Him, "Who is he who gave You this authority?" In yesterday's reading, He told a parable: "A certain man planted a vineyard, leased it to vinedressers, and went into a far country for a long time. Now at vintage-time he sent a servant to the vinedressers, that they might give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the vinedressers beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent another servant; and they beat him also, treated him shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent a third; and they wounded him also and cast him out. Then the owner of the vineyard said, 'What shall I do? I will send my beloved son. Probably they will respect him when they see him. But when the vinedressers saw him, they reasoned among themselves, saying, 'This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, that the inheritance may be ours.' So they cast him out of the vineyard and killed him. Therefore what will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those vinedressers and give the vineyard to others." And when they heard it they said, "Certainly not!" Then He looked at them and said, "What then is this that is written: 'The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone'? Whoever falls on that stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder."
And the chief priests and the scribes that very hour sought to lay hands on Him, but they feared the people--for they knew that He had spoken this parable against them. We again see the "mirroring" in the crowds Jesus puts to good use. It is the leadership who care so much for the opinions of the crowds. Jesus speaks His truth; the Gospels never project the crowds in a very good light, and Jesus Himself has railed against the hypocrisy of those who care more for the praise of men rather than the praise of God.
So they watched Him and sent spies who pretended to be righteous, that they might seize on His words, in order to deliver Him to the power and the authority of the governor. Now it is an "open secret" -- and from the point of view of the Gospel, an open season for attack on Jesus by any means. They will seek to deliver Him to the Roman governor to get rid of Him. It's a kind of extreme irony: those who are criticized as hypocrites ("actors" in the original Greek sense of this word) send spies who pretend to be righteous, to trap Jesus. The word here for "send" is the same root as the word for "apostle" (or one who is sent on a mission).
Then they asked Him, saying, "Teacher, we know that You say and teach rightly, and You do not show personal favoritism, but teach the way of God in truth . . . " Again, the ironies here play themselves out, in a veiled teaching on "good trees" and "bad trees" and what kinds of fruit each bears. The spies praise Jesus as one who is not a "respecter of persons" -- and yet all is done for fear of the crowds, under cover of pretense, and false righteousness. The irony deepens as they tell Jesus that, literally, He doesn't look at persons, or rather, in the Greek, faces. In these words are also allusions to the masks of actors ("hypocrites" in the Greek) who portray persons other than themselves. In Jesus' truth, He is not fooled by rank or station or "face." Rather He sees the true person, and He tells His truth regardless of worldly countenance.
"Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" But He perceived their craftiness, and said to them, "Why do you test Me? Show Me a denarius. Whose image and inscription does it have?" They answered and said, "Caesar's." In a few simple verses there are yet more ironies in the Gospel. Jesus perceives the craftiness underneath their poses; He sees the truth. Again, as in His testing earlier by the leadership when asked about His authority, He will not answer on their terms, but only in terms of what is truly in their hearts. As they seek to deceive, so He answers truthfully but appropriately to their motives. The irony is in His question: "Whose image and inscription does it have?" He is not respecter of "persons" or "faces." They wear false faces or masks as righteous. And Jesus points to literally another face and image, a representative of Caesar whose stamp and name are on all coins, making them a part of Caesar's realm, and giving the weight of Caesar's presence.
He said to them, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." But they could not catch Him in His words in the presence of the people. And they marveled at His answer and kept silent. My study bible has a long note on this passage: "The question on Roman taxation is designed to trap Jesus between the Roman government and the Jewish people. A 'yes' would turn the people against Him. A 'no' would bring a charge of treason by the Roman governor. His answer defeats their cunning, and shows that no conflict need exist between civic and religious duties. Christians can render the state its due while serving God. As the coin bears the image of the emperor and is properly paid to him, so each person bears the image of God and belongs to Him. Conflict arises when the state demands of Christians what belongs only to God."
Once again we note Jesus' brilliant use of the "mirror" of the crowds for the spies of the hypocrites who pose questions to Him. It is they who fear the crowds, not Jesus. Image, all this talk is about image. What is our true image within us, that my study bible writes about in its commentary? What is the false image one might portray as a hypocrite? So much depends upon the difference between truth and lies, what we respect and what we do not respect. It is Christ we revere as Truth, it is His truth that we seek. As Caesar has stamped the coins in his image and name, so also we are stamped with an image by God, and we may choose to live in His name. In reality, of course, "every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures" James 1:17-18. In the words of the Epistle of James, we come to understand that our lives, approached through faith in Christ, become framed in a kind of framework of authority that recognizes all things within the sphere of God, indeed all of our lives. This embrace includes all worldly and created things, all worldly realms and empires. So, we negotiate our lives through the name that is above all others. Jesus (and Luke's gospel) gives us a picture of the Incarnation in this understanding. As the Lord was human and lived a human life as Jesus, so we are to negotiate our own lives in this world through lives of faith, through the lens of what it is that we understand as the bearer and beginning of all things, and whose image is stamped in us. In this Holy Week portrayed in Luke's gospel, let us remember what season we find ourselves in today (December 5th), as we approach the celebration of the nativity of Jesus into our world. As He took flesh, let us remember that our worldly lives are also to be lived in such an "incarnational" way, so that we bear fruits in His likeness. We know what is Caesar's and what is God's, but all is negotiated through our example in Christ.