A day’s wages for an ordinary laborer in Jesus’ time was a single coin, a Roman coin called a denarius. It was small, about the size of a dime, but thicker and heavier and made of silver. The common word for money in several languages, like dinero in Spanish, comes from the name of this coin.
Denarii were generally imprinted with the image of the current emperor. In our text for this week from Matthew 22:15-22, that would have been Tiberius, the successor of Augustus Caesar. In response to a question about paying taxes, Jesus requested and held a denarius like this because it was the amount of a general “head tax” on every man in the empire.
Presumably the question about paying taxes to Caesar was religiously motivated for the Pharisees and Herodians who were trying to trap Jesus. Along with the emperor’s image, the tax coin was imprinted on the front with the title “divine son.” So it might have seemed problematic for faithful Jews to pay a tax to someone with pretensions to divinity using a coin which expressed those pretensions.
Jesus famously derailed the question which might have trapped Him into saying something subversive against the civil government by declaring in verse 21, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s…,” to use the KJV language. Caesar’s image is on the coin, so it clearly belongs to him. This call for submission to payment of taxes, even unjust taxes, is often ignored by conservatives who would rather point to Romans 13 to talk about acquiescing to a current governing party or politician while at the same time urging rebellion against taxation and cutting of taxes.
The real cutting edge of Jesus’ answer is the second half of verse 21, “and render unto God what is God’s.” If we are to give to the emperor the coinage on which his image is imprinted, then let us give to God that on which His image is imprinted. In the world of the Bible, it is our own selves which are stamped with the image of God. It is our own very beings which are to be rendered back to their divine owner.
So the thought for the week is how we may practically and regularly give our lives back to God from whom they came, how we may concretely acknowledged His stamped image on us. He intends that His image be manifest in us, that in giving ourselves to Him we look more and more like Him in His love and grace.