“For as much as he stirs in vain, man always walks within his image.” – Augustine, Commentary on Psalm 38:7
I have always been fascinated by the work done to restore ancient frescos that brings to light the original images, the faces of the people as they were first imagined by the artist. It seems to me that it is somewhat related to what happens in our own lives. With time, our original image – that which God has thought of for us – is covered over or hidden. At the same time however, just like frescos damaged by the weather, God patiently, through His grace, works to slowly bring back to light the original beauty of the image.
This Gospel passage is also based on two different images: one depicting Caesar on a coin used for paying the census tax, while the other is the divine image engraved in every man and woman.
In this passage, as in our own lives, the questions asked of God are often pretentious: in reality, we already know the answer we want to hear but we hide it deep in our hearts, pretending we can’t find it – just like when we dig sheepishly into our pockets in order to avoid having to treat an acquaintance to their coffee, though we feel we should.
When Jesus asks astutely to see one of the special coins that the tribute to Caesar must be paid with, the Herodians – supporters of Roman rule – take one out immediately, a clear sign that they paid the tax. They interrogate Jesus on whether or not the tax should be paid, but they already have their answer.
The tribute to Caesar was a tax that, from the 6th century BC, all the inhabitants of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea had to pay and had to do so with a special coin that bore the image of Caesar. Paying the tax with this special coin became a way of promoting the worship of the emperor. The resistance that a Jew felt towards this imposition wasn’t merely economic or political, but also religious, since the Jewish Law prohibited the creation of images. Using that coin could be considered an act of idolatry.
Thus, love for the Emperor is expressed through the use of the coin. It is a love that is quantified. It represents an exchange in which there is a conqueror on the one hand and the conquered, i.e. the ones dominated in the relationship. I get the impression that Caesar’s style is often the same as our own when we measure our relationships by quantifiable exchanges, when everything is given a price and we are always scrupulously counting how much the other has paid in tribute to our image. We are often narcissistic, like Caesar, living from relationships that pay us a quota of veneration to and validation of the ideas we have of ourselves.
Jesus’ response can’t be interpreted, as it often has been throughout the history of politics, in the sense of a separation of powers: civil and religious. Keep in mind, Jesus brings man – all of him – to the complete participation in God.
If in fact everything belongs to the one whose image it bears, then it’s true that the coin belongs to Caesar and it is acceptable that this coin returns to him. But it is also true that, as God’s creature, man bears the image of God. Therefore the entire man ought to return to Him whose image he bears, who is God. Thus, if we accept paying the tax because of the image the coin bears, we should also conclude that man too – all of him – belongs to God, and he should return to Him.
However, perhaps in our lives it is not the image of God that is apparent to those around us, but the image of Caesar. He who looks at the coin sees Caesar, but what does the person that looks at our life see? Like an ancient fresco, the image of God within us is often hidden and may even seem ruined, but it can never be truly lost.
The spiritual life implies that we allow God to restore the fresco that He originally painted within us, and slowly bring to light the beauty with which He has thought us into existence. This is the only image with which we should be concerned and not that which we stamp on the counterfeits we use to pay for our self-interested relationships.
The Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech. They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” Then they handed him the Roman coin. He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” At that he said to them, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
The Gospel of the Lord
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