Opponents of Jesus ask a question trying to trap Jesus:
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “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. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21 They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. (Matt. 22:15-22, NRSV)
Why would a Jew have a denarius with Caesar’s image, especially in the Temple (Matt. 22:20)? In theory, one major purpose of the moneychangers was to keep coins with a “graven image” out of the Temple. The coin was engraved with Caesar’s image and this inscription:
Ti[berivs] Caesar Divi Avg[vsti] F[ilivs] Avgvstvs
“Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus”
It was a classic example of breaking the Second Commandment.
Why would any Jew have such a coin, since there were other options? Rome allowed many provincial cities around the empire to mint cheaper bronze coins, including 38 cities in Judea or Palestine. But only a few select cities outside of Rome were allowed to mint the gold aureus and the silver denarius[i]; only Caesarea Philippi in Palestine. Rome carefully oversaw these coins.
Gold and silver coins were always at risk of shaving or “clipping.” Thieves sought to discreetly remove a bit from the edges of these coins and then pass the coins along. The industrial revolution produced machined coins that could have milling or reeding. Our American dimes and quarters were originally of precious metal and still have milling—the ridges on the edges of coins. Machines also made perfectly round coins. All these things reduced the chance of clipping. Shaving, clipping and plugging coins was a big problem, even in antiquity. How did ancients avoid this? Mainly, it was caveat emptor: let the buyer beware. Have you seen old movies where people held up coins to look at them (to check for clipping) or bit them to see if they were soft metal (to check if it was real gold or silver)? Rome had another method as well. They fiercely pursued those who counterfeited or clipped coins. Roman coins were preferred to provincial ones because Rome enforced honest coins (brutally with the sword). Rome also kept the highways safe from bandits and the seas safe from pirates, also brutally. Roman soldiers were everywhere. Jesus tells the Temple crowd, if you want Caesar to keep the money honest, then you have to pay his taxes (Matt. 22:21).
The Kingdom of God, where no one cheats his neighbor, is the other way to ensure honest money and safe roads. When Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” he wasn’t saying some things belong to Caesar and some belong to God. No. (Everything belongs to God.) He was contrasting the two kingdoms: Caesar’s and God’s. Both can offer honest money and safe roads.
There in God’s Temple, Jesus was challenging them to pick which king and kingdom they wanted. Today was tax day in America. Hopefully, you were honest on your taxes. The bigger question is what kept you honest, fear of God or fear of Caesar?
Who’s your king?
[i] The aureus and the denarius may have started out as bullion, coins where the value of the metal matched the coin’s value. Theoretically, a silver denarius contained a denarius’ worth of silver. Initially (in 211 BC) the denarius contained 4.5 grams of silver. By the time of Jesus, it was 3.9 grams. By the time of Paul, Nero further debased it to 3.4 grams and reduced the purity from 98% to 93.5%. The Roman denarius is commonly said to be worth one day’s wage. The sole basis for this claim is Jesus’ parable (Matt. 20:2). Jesus’ parable was stressing the generosity of the landowner at harvest. A half-denarius was more commonly a day’s wage. Translating to today’s wages, a denarius was about $125. For more information about the value of a denarius, see Paul and First Century Letter Writing (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), pp. 51-52, 165-69.