#83: The Head on the Coin

Mark 12:13–17

Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”
But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
And they were amazed at him.

It’s not so much about taxes, more about power and its power cousin – subservience.

Actually it is a bit about taxes so let’s get this out of the way first. The idea of everyone paying an acceptable tax amount to a form of government be it the emperor or the Temple which provides strong walls and roads, peace and protection, justice and provision for the poor is a really good thing. I enjoy paying tax, it makes me feel like a proper citizen both contributing and benefitting. All tax dodgers, whether they are big international companies or local plumbers are robbing the state, robbing me and robbing needy people. Clearly in this story Jesus has no problem with the idea of paying taxes, in fact he seems to think it is a good thing. Well, of course, he does because he is a good and fair man who thinks hospitals, schools and social care are good things.

But there is a bigger thing here about power. The person who you pay your taxes to is the person who rules you. Taxes in Jesus’s day were not quite like ours, they were more like a form of tribute. You could pay your money to the Romans who had conquered your land or to the religious/political elite who ran the Temple. Either way you are giving your money to a ruler who is oblivious of you as a person, you are being a servant or a serf.

There is something incredibly un-servant like in Jesus’s reply ‘whose is the head on the coin?’ Everyone in Jerusalem, including all the Temple, work hard to pay to and in effect serve the emperor. Jesus shows respect but clearly there is no deference in him. He seems to be above or at least quite detached from the Romans. He might hand over his coin but he is not subservient and he is certainly not going to hand over his soul. In Jesus’s land it is God who is the emperor.

Soon after his conversion Bob Dylan captured the nature of human need to follow and serve.

You may be an ambassador to England or France,
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance.
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world,
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes,
Indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord,
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

You might be a rock ‘n’ roll addict prancing on the stage,
You might have drugs at your command, women in a cage.
You may be a business man or some high-degree thief,
They may call you doctor or they may call you chief.

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes you are,
You’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord,
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

In our selfie obsessed world it feels as though life is no longer about being part of a greater whole to which we have dues to pay or to political leaders to whom we owe allegiance. It all seems much more self-centred.

I am me,
This is my life.
My space, my body, my time.
I am free,
I have my own opinions,
No-one tells me what to do.

So what do we think TV adds, newspapers, conspiracy theories, social media and ‘group think’ are all about. When he became a Christian Bob Dylan discovered that actually everybody serves somebody, basically it’s the devil or God. I think I’ll choose God.
Jesus himself had spoken about making a choice between serving God or serving mammon i.e. money with all the false promises and stresses that it brings.

Matthew 6:24

No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.
You cannot serve both God and money.

The big question is then obvious to us all: ‘Am I willing to let Jesus be Lord of my life?’

Lord Jesus,
May your breath be on my life.
May you be Lord
Of my heart,
Of my relationships,
Of my daily lifestyle,
Of my money.