Caesar & Dead Presidents


Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

It was called the census tax, a tax imposed by the Roman emperor upon all foreign subjects for the distinct honor and privilege of living under the standard of Rome. Such an imposition was an insult to Israel who recognized God as their only true king. And paying the tax was equivalent to accepting the occupancy of the foreign power. If Jesus said to not pay the tax, he could justly be suspected of subversion by the Roman authorities. If he said to pay it, he would lose credibility with his own people. So the question they asked him was intended only to trip him. They were confident they had thought this through. There would be no right answer.

But Jesus saw malice in their hearts. And he would take the occasion to focus on something more important. “Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Before his opponents could figure out his strategy, someone produced the coin in question. Now why would anyone opposed to the tax carry around the very symbol of their surrender? The disciples of the Pharisees were very much opposed to Roman rule and considered the use of money bearing images or inscriptions to be blasphemous. On the other hand, the Herodians were opportunists who cooperated with their occupiers because it gave them legal status in the empire. On a side note, the Roman government did recognize the sensitivity of the issue and allowed in Israel the use of coins with no image or inscription, which made it necessary to employ foreign moneychangers in local commerce. Now all this was taking place right in the temple precincts, where these very coins posed a direct affront to the Jewish faith. They never saw that coming. Strike one.

“Whose image is this and whose inscription?” Again, they didn’t know where he was going with the question. “Are you blind? Can’t you tell? Caesar’s. Duh!” They had the offending object in their possession. It was clear admission they fully understood why it was offensive, and still they chose to carry it. This implied an active participation in blasphemy—an offense against God punishable by death. Strike two.

“Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” What follows says something interesting. “When they heard this, they were amazed, and leaving him they went away.” They were speechless. No more questions, your honor. The prosecution rests … until we think of something else. Strike three.

3 strikes

I found it amusing when I discovered a few years ago that a slang term for U.S. currency is “dead presidents.” That’s because most American money in circulation bears the images of George Washington ($1), Thomas Jefferson ($2), Abraham Lincoln ($5), Alexander Hamilton ($10), Andrew Jackson ($20), Ulysses S. Grant ($50), and Benjamin Franklin ($100). Ironically, neither Hamilton nor Franklin were presidents. In contrast, British money bears the image of their current living monarch. So we deal in dead presidents today as people in Jesus’ time dealt with the Emperor’s image and inscription. Funny, the world’s economy runs on dead presidents, and incidentally, so does the work of the church in proclaiming the gospel and serving the poor.

Benjamin Franklin $100

But the point Jesus was trying to make had nothing to do with money. Instead, he was attempting to turn his listeners’ attention to what is clearly our lack of concern or attention to giving God what belongs to God. We spend a great deal of time and energy on money and things that have to do with money—paying bills, applying for loans, watching interest rates, analyzing financial trends, managing investments and cash flow, determining whether or not we can afford to go into debt, refinancing debt, retiring debt, collecting pensions. And that’s just the stuff that makes sense to me. I’m sure you can add a few more terms to that list. But when it comes to attending to matters of spiritual importance, and giving God what belongs to God, we discover we are not as knowledgeable about the subject.

So what exactly belongs to God? From Jesus’ own question regarding the coin used to pay the census tax, we can conclude that whatever bears the image and inscription (or name) of God must rightfully belong to God. Now from the book of Genesis, we read that God created woman and man in his very image and likeness. So all people bear the divine image, and therefore belong to God, whether male or female, slave or free, Jew or gentile. There can be no doubt about it. The dignity of each person draws from God himself in whose image and likeness we are created. And repaying to God what belongs to God means we treat each other with respect and dignity at all times. When we create laws that make it perfectly legal to harm another human being, whether by abortion, capital punishment, physician-assisted suicide, or war, whether by marketing tobacco, ignoring the illegal drug trade, the unaffordability of basic healthcare and education, or our failure to defend the poor, the physically challenged, and those on the fringes of society, we are not giving to God what belongs to God.


If we take that fundamental principle further, all creation bears God’s image and likeness in some form. So we also must make a top priority the care of the earth, its material resources, and its living inhabitants. We need to conserve and protect our natural treasures for future generations. And we also need to plan for and provide for the human family to flourish, and the mission of the church to prosper. Our selfishness, our prejudices, and our shortsightedness will seek to direct our attention instead to our own comfort, security, and profit. In consequence, we often have little trouble arguing on behalf of the economic downturn, or potential loss of profit, or the fact that we won’t be around to see an investment in human development reach fulfillment.

If we truly believe that everything depends on us alone, that we can only rely on what we are certain of, then it makes sense to take few risks. But if we believe that God is at work in the world, that God desires the human family to flourish and the mission of the church to prosper, that it is God’s will we desire to fulfill and not our own, we need to use our best talents and resources to forge ahead.

We are quite familiar with what belongs to Caesar, and things that pertain to dead presidents. Why aren’t we as attentive to what belongs to God?

Hands on a globe

Rolo B Castillo © 2014