Coin of tribute

In Brief

Several of the gospels tell the story of how the Pharisees attempted to entrap Jesus by asking him whether or not it was lawful to pay taxes to the Roman authorities. He confounded them by pointing to "a coin of the tribute" (i.e., a coin such as would be used to pay taxes) and telling them to give "To Caesar what is Caesar's, to God what is God's."

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If Jesus had said simply that it is lawful to pay taxes to Rome, the Pharisees could have argued that he did not support Jewish resistance to Roman occupation and taxation. If he had said no, they planned to hand him over to Pontius Pilate as an insurrectionist (Luke 20:20). Jesus avoided both these traps. Asking the Pharisees to produce a coin, he asked them whose image it bears. To their answer, "Caesar's," he replied, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." At this wise and cunning answer, the Pharisees "marvelled" (Matt 22:22).

In Nestor Stephen reflects that, like so many of Jesus' parables and pronouncements, this anecdote offers a "riddling sentence," an obscure wisdom "to be woven and woven on the church's looms." Where Jesus spoke poetry, the Church must find doctrine.

Many Christian authorities have quoted the sentence about the coin of tribute as implying a separation of secular and sacred responsibilities. It seems to cohere with Jesus' telling Pilate that "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36): religious obedience is one thing, while political obedience is another, and the two need not clash. Reasonable as this interpretation may be, Stephen is not interested in reducing Jesus' subversive and elusive thoughts to Sunday school teachings. When he says that they have been woven on the church's looms, he uses the same metaphor for church theologians that he used in Telemachus to condemn the heretics who have opposed orthodox theology: "The void awaits surely all them that weave the wind." Stephen remains focused in both passages (and indeed throughout the book) on the chasm between world and spirit, event and significance, surface and symbol. The "long look from dark eyes" that Jesus gave to the "eager faces" of the malevolent Pharisees was opaque to them, and would be no less opaque today.

JH 2012
Roman coin bearing the image of Tiberius. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Titian, The Tribute Money (1516). Source: Wikimedia Commons.