Whose Image is This?

This past week I attended the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen, which was spectacular (one of the best musicals I’ve attended) largely because it spoke to the deep desire we have as humans to be seen and loved.

It came on the heels of reading, earlier in the week, the account of the Pharisees and Herodians testing Jesus regarding the payment of taxes to Caesar. Mark 12:13-17 tells the story:

Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.

This story is usually referenced as an example of some sort of a two-tiered teaching on economics when people talk about the implications of Jesus’ social teachings. It is frequently used to suggest that God’s system is over there, and our economic system (usually captialism) is over here, separating the two. However, I’d like to look at it a bit differently, if possible, stemming from the comment that “they were utterly amazed at him,” because, to me, reading that text through the typical lens of separate economic systems just doesn’t seem to be that amazing. Why were the Pharisees and Herodians so amazed by this?

The Pharisees and Herodians thought they were going to be clever and get Jesus to either repudiate the paying of tribute to the emperor, thus breaking the law and revolting against the emperor; or declare the legitimacy of Roman rule through the payment of taxes, placing himself at odds with the Jewish longing for Zion. Jesus, however, turns the tables on them by asking them to bring him a denarius (Roman coin).

Jesus then asks the Pharisees and Herodians whose image is on the coin, and whose title. The Greek word here is εἰκών, or icon/image in English. His testers then state that it is Caesar’s image and title on the coin, so Jesus states that they should return to Caesar that which is Caesar’s property, at which point they become amazed.

So, why are they amazed? I’d suggest the answer to that question requires a reference to Genesis 1:27:

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Here, in the LXX (Greek version of the Old Testament), the word translated as image is εἰκών, the same word used in Mark’s telling of the “render unto Caesar” story. So, if the coins with Caesar’s image on them are his property, then by extension humanity, which bears God’s image, not Caesar’s, is not. In one fell swoop Jesus emphasized that, while Caesar’s kingdom made claim to ultimately worthless material, God’s kingdom makes claim to all of humanity. And what does this King do with his possession? He gives them freedom, lavishes grace upon them, loves them, and gives his very life for them. Such a statement – along with its implications for economics, politics, and class – is truly amazing.