The Image of God Engraved on You

Jijo Kandamkulathy, CMF

Claretian Publications, Macau


Mt 22:15-21

One day the Pharisees, accompanied by supporters of Herod, ask him a tricky question: “Is it against the Law to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Their question is worded in such a way as to make it impossible for any loophole: If one is against the payment of taxes, he could be denounced to the Roman authorities as subversive. (In fact, according to Lk 23:2, before Pilate they accused him of inciting the people not to pay taxes to Caesar). If he is in favor, he attracts the antipathy of the people who hate the Roman occupiers.

Every Roman coin had an image of the emperor. Graven images amount to idolatry and are prohibited by their law. Using the money of Tiberius meant idolatry. Jesus is aware of the pitfall that they have laid for him. He does not avoid the question. As he usually does, he skillfully leads the interlocutors to the root of the problem.

He wants them first to show him the money. They naively reach out under their tunic where they usually hide the money and they present it to him. They do not realize that Jesus is playing a trick on them as well: first, he asks for the money. It means that he does not possess it (for he does not even have a stone to lay his head [Mt 8:20]), and if they pull it out, it means that they use it without any problem. They receive it for their services, and with it, they buy produce at the market. What’s more, the dispute takes place in the precincts of the temple (Mt 21:23), and in the holy place, and they do not bother about not profaning it by showing that image. They have scruples only when they have to pay taxes.

After looking at the money Jesus asks, “Whose image is this?” “Caesar’s,” they say. “So, “he concludes, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s” (v. 21).

The first message is: it is a moral and civil duty to contribute to the common good by taxes. There is no reason that justifies tax evasion or theft of state assets. Whatever the policy and economic choice of the government, the disciple of Christ is called to be an honest and exemplary citizen. He is actively engaged in building a just society. He makes political choices that favor the weakest, not those that safeguard their own interests. Jesus’ answer, however, is not limited to state the duty to contribute to the common good with the payment of taxes. He adds: “Give to God what is God’s.”

The verb he uses more precisely means “to return.” What belongs to God? Tertullian already in 200 A.D. realized that he was the human person that was handed back to God. Creating him, in fact, he had said, “Let us make man in our image.” (Gen 1:26).

If the coin had to be “returned” to Caesar because on it was stamped the face of his master, the human person must be “returned” to God. The human person is the only creature on whom the face of God is imprinted. They are sacred and no one can take them as their own. Those who make them their own (enslave, oppress, exploit, dominate, use them as objects…) should immediately return them to their Lord.

(Indebted to Fr. Fernando Armellini SCJ)