Taxes are an especially controversial topic in the current presidential election. I have little interest in spouting my political views on this blog, but I think that most people can agree that the 2016 election has sparked energy, concern, and even anger and anxiety among many in the United States and around the world. And one of the biggest topics on the table is taxes.
In Mark 12 Jesus addresses the topic of taxes and our political and spiritual responsibilities. Verses 13-17 state, “And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him.”
With a cursory reading of this text, we see Jesus saying that what belongs to someone should be given to them. In this case, it is a coin that bears the image of Caesar, the Roman Emperor. He also says to give to God what is God’s. Without digging deeper, we can get stuck wondering and postulating “What is God’s?” But if you look at the language Jesus chooses to use, he actually specifies quite clearly what belongs to God.
In verse 16, Jesus asks, “Whose image and inscription is this?” The Greek for “image” is εἰκών (where we get our English word, icon). The Greek translation of Genesis 1:26-27 uses this word twice: “26 Then God said, ‘Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.’ 27 God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.”
So after we realize that Jesus wants us to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s, we learn what truly belongs to God: everyone who bears God’s image. Just as we pay our monetary taxes to those to whom they belong, Jesus calls us to give ourselves to the One whose image we bear.