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THE TRIBUTE MONEY
“And they send unto Him certain of the Pharisees and of the Herodians, that they might catch Him in talk. And when they were come, they say unto Him, Master, we know that Thou art true, and carest not for any one: for Thou regardest not the person of men, but of a truth teachest the way of God: Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? Shall we give, or shall we not give? But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, Why tempt ye Me? bring Me a penny, that I may see it. And they brought it. And He saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? And they said unto Him, Caesar's. And Jesus said unto them, Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's. And they marveled greatly at Him.” MARK 12:13–17 (R.V.)
THE contrast is very striking between this incident and the last. Instead of a challenge, Jesus is respectfully consulted; and instead of a formal concourse of the authorities of His religion, He is Himself the authority to Whom a few perplexed people profess to submit their difficulty. Nevertheless, it is a new and subtle effort of the enmity of His defeated foes. They have sent to Him certain Pharisees who will excite the popular indignation if He yields anything to the foreigner, and Herodians who will, if He refused, bring upon Him the colder and deadlier vengeance of Rome. They flatter, in order to stimulate, that fearless utterance which must often have seemed to them so rash: “We know that Thou art true, and carest not for any one, for Thou regardest not the person of men, but of a truth teachest the way of God.” And they appeal to a higher motive by representing the case to be one of practical and personal urgency. “Shall we give, or shall we not give?”
Never was it more necessary to join the wisdom of the serpent to the innocence of the dove, for it would seem that He must needs answer directly, and that no direct answer can fail to have the gravest consequences. But in their eagerness to secure this menacing position, they have left one weak point in the attack. They have made the question altogether a practical one. The abstract doctrine of the right to drive out a foreign power, of the limits of authority and freedom, they have not raised. It is simply a question of the hour, Shall we give or shall we not give?
And Jesus baffled them by treating it as such. There was no longer a national coinage, except only of the half shekel for the temple tax. When He asked them for a smaller coin, they produced a Roman penny stamped with the effigy of Caesar. Thus they confessed the use of the Roman currency. Now since they accepted the advantages of subjugation, they ought also to endure its burdens: since they traded as Roman subjects, they ought to pay the Roman tribute. Not He had preached submission, but they had avowed it; and any consequent unpopularity would fall not upon Him but them. They had answered their own question. And Jesus laid down the broad and simple rule, “Render (pay back) unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's. And they marveled greatly at Him.” No wonder they marveled, for it would be hard to find in all the records of philosophy so ready and practical a device to baffle such cunning intriguers, such keenness in One Whose life was so far removed from the schools of worldly wisdom, joined with so firm a grasp on principle, in an utterance so brief, yet going down so far to the roots of action.
Now the words of Jesus are words for all time; even when He deals with a question of the hour, He treats it from the point of view of eternal fitness and duty; and this command to render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's has become the charter of the state against all usurpations of tyrannous ecclesiastics. A sphere is recognized in which obedience to the law is a duty to God. But it is absurd to pretend that Christ taught blind and servile obedience to all tyrants in all circumstances, for this would often make it impossible to obey the second injunction, and to render unto God the things which are God's, — a clause which asserts in turn the right of conscience and the Church against all secular encroachments. The point to observe is, that the decision of Jesus is simply an inference, a deduction. St. Matthew has inserted the word “therefore,” and it is certainly implied: render unto Caesar the things which you confess to be his own, which bear his image upon their face.
Can we suppose that no such inference gives point to the second clause? It would then become, like too many of our pious sayings, a mere supplement, inappropriate, however excellent, a make weight, and a platitude. No example of such irrelevance can be found in the story of our Lord. When, finding the likeness of Caesar on the coin, He said, Render, therefore, unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's, He at least suggested that the reason for both precepts ran parallel, and the image of the higher and heavenlier Monarch could be found on what He claims of us. And it is so. He claims all we have and all we are. “The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof:” and “I have made thee, thou art Mine.” And for us and ours alike the argument holds good. All the visible universe bears deeply stamped into its substance His image and superscription. The grandeur of mountains and stars, the fairness of violet and harebell, are alike revelations of the Creator. The heavens declare His glory: the firmament showeth His handiwork: the earth is full of His riches: all the discoveries which expand our mastery over nature and disease, over time and space, are proofs of His wisdom and goodness, Who laid the amazing plan which we grow wise by tracing out. Find a corner on which contrivance and benevolence have not stamped the royal image, and we may doubt whether that bleak spot owes Him tribute. But no desert is so blighted, no solitude so forlorn.
And we should render unto God the things which are God's, seeing His likeness in His world. “For the invisible things of Him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things which are made, even His everlasting power and divinity.”
And if most of all He demands the love, the heart of man, here also He can ask, “Whose image and superscription is this?” For in the image of God made He man. It is sometimes urged that this image was quite effaced when Adam fell. But it was not to protect the unfallen that the edict was spoken “Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God made He man.” He was not an unfallen man of whom St. Paul said that he “ought not to have his head veiled, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God;” neither were they unfallen, of whom St. James said, “We curse men which are made after the likeness of God” (Gen. 9:6; I Cor. 11:7; James 3:9). Common men, for whom the assassin lurks, who need instruction how to behave in church, and whom others scorn and curse, these bear upon them an awful likeness; and even when they refuse tribute to their king, He can ask them, Whose is this image?
We see it in the intellect, ever demanding new worlds to conquer, overwhelming us with its victories over time and space. “In apprehension how like a God.” Alas for us! if we forget that the Spirit of knowledge and wisdom is no other than the Spirit of the Lord God.
We see this likeness far more in our moral nature. It is true that sin has spoiled and wasted this, yet there survives in man's heart, as nowhere else in our world, a strange sympathy with the holiness and love of God. No other of His attributes has the same power to thrill us. Tell me that He lit the stars and can quench them with a word, and I reverence, perhaps I fear Him; yet such power is outside and beyond my sphere; it fails to touch me, it is high, I cannot attain unto it. Even the rarer human gifts, the power of a Czar, the wisdom of Bacon, are thus beyond me, I am unkindled, they do not find me out. But speak of holiness, even the stainless holiness of God, undefiled through all eternity, and you shake the foundations of my being. And why does the reflection that God is pure humble me more than the knowledge that God is omnipotent? Because it is my spiritual nature which is most conscious of the Divine image, blurred and defaced indeed, but not obliterated yet. Because while I listen I am dimly conscious of my birthright, my destiny, that I was born to resemble this, and all is lost if I come short of it. Because every child and every sinner feels that it is more possible for him to be like his God than like Newton, or Shakespeare, or Napoleon. Because the work of grace is to call in the worn and degraded coinage of humanity, and, as the mint restamps and reissues the pieces which have grown thin and worn, so to renew us after the image of Him that created us.
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