In this scripture, Jesus is in the last days of his life. He’s doing things like throwing tables in the temple upside down and rambling around Jerusalem teaching. Religious and political authorities are looking for ways to turn his followers against him. Or to find excuses to arrest him and end his disruptive actions and teachings. The establishment is so desperate to get rid of him that traditional enemies are working together; in today’s passage, the Pharisees and Herodians cooperate. They usually had very little to do with each other.
But as a saying goes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. So the cabal attempting to silence Jesus sends some men on a mission. Ask a question; trip Jesus up. They find Jesus and try to appeal to his ego. Then comes the question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” The trap is sprung: if he says people should pay the tax, the folks he’s preaching to—the folks suffering under Roman occupation—will get angry at him. Maybe even attack him. If he says not to pay the tax then he can be arrested and gotten rid of.
Jesus rejects the options put in front of him. He rejects the binary choice presented. Give me a denarius, he says. Tell me whose image is there. And, of course, it’s Caesar’s image. Give to the emperor what’s the emperor’s, Jesus says. Give to God the things that are God’s.
Boom. Mic drop. No one has a response. There’s awe. Amazement. Perplexity.
There’s a couple details worth mentioning. The coin in question—a denarius—had the emperor’s image stamped onto it. It also declared that the emperor divine. A denarius effectively declared that the emperor was god. So, any observant Jew who used or carried a denarius was breaking the commandments to have only one god and to spurn idols. Carrying the coin itself was against the Torah.
Jesus had to ask for someone to give him a denarius to make his point. He’s not carrying around the emperor’s image.
It’s also worth mentioning that almost all of Jesus’ listeners would have known the stories of creation in Genesis. That story includes the information that humans are made in God’s image. We carry the image of God. We are stamped with the Divine, unlike a coin stamped with the sign of empire. That can be taken to mean that nothing we are, nothing we do, nothing we have, rightfully belongs to empire.
That brings us to a question: what empire do we live in now? We don’t have an “emperor” as such, but there surely are powers in this world that we’re expected to pay homage to. To be loyal to. To give authority to. And a lot of them resemble aspects of old empires. The same ‘false gods,’ if you will, emerge among us now in different guises. Greed. Violence. Militarism. Hate among peoples. Us/them dynamics. Pride. Pressure to conform to harmful norms. Exploitation of the earth.
The list of things that corrupt and degrade the image of God within us is long; all of that list manifests empire. All of that list asks us to offer ourselves to the fear and enmity that drive empire in its seemingly infinite forms.
What are we to do?
Today’s scripture reminded me of a story about a couple ancient Greek philosophers. Anthony de Mello tells it like this:
The philosopher Diogenes was eating bread and lentils for supper. The philosopher Aristippus, who lived comfortably by flattering the king, saw him.
Said Aristippus, “If you would learn to be a servant to the king you would not have to live on lentils.”
Said Diogenes, “Learn to live on lentils and you will not have to cultivate the king.”
Diogenes raises a question similar to Jesus’. What cost do we pay, really, for a life that makes tribute to the ways of empire?
Jesus doesn’t offer simple, black and white answers. It’s on us to discern over and over what price we are willing to pay to the powers of greed and hate and division and violence. Some people have always said no to paying anything. They often stand as our heroes: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Mohandas Gandhi, Francis of Assisi, the Berrigan brothers, Harriet Tubman, and so on.
And there are always people asking that we stop paying loyalty to the powers of empire:
- Youth marched in the streets last month to remind us all that the current shape of our fossil fuel economy is on a path to destroy life on the planet as we know it.
- People this week will celebrate Coming Out Day, reminding folks that lgbtq people would rather be fully who they are then submit to fear and hate.
- Other people this week celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day, reminding us that one of the tools of empire is always physical and cultural genocide.
There are always people resisting paying homage to the idols of empire and insisting that all people carry the image of God that is beloved, blessed, more important by far than anything else.
So I’d like to suggest an approach to the conundrum of discernment that Jesus leaves us with in today’s scripture.
First, remember that the image of God dwells deeply within you, within your spirit. This is the image of God revealed in Jesus: compassion, healing, grace, forgiveness, peaceableness, true and loving humility, solidarity with the poor and marginalized and oppressed.
This is the image of God revealed in the gospels. This image of God has nothing to do with the idols and practices of empire among us.
If the image of God in us and in the rest of the world is to become clearer and shine more fully we must serve the idols of empire less. The discernment asked of us by today’s scripture requires that we strip away the distortions and corruptions that empire has engrained within us. We must do the work of revealing the shining of God’s image.
May that be the aim of our discernment. And may the Divine thriving and shalom imprinted upon us increasingly reveal its beauty and presence.
Scripture: Mark 12:13-17