Mark 12:13-17 and parallels record a controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees and Herodians, in which Jesus’ opponents ask Jesus whether or not it is right to pay the poll tax to Caesar. Jesus asks for them to produce a coin, which has Caesar’s icon/portrait on it, and makes the famous statement to “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” But what exactly does this mean? What is Jesus really getting at besides giving a witty comeback to his challengers?
With a tip of the hat to Kuruvilla (Mark, 269), there is some very interesting patristic commentary on this episode. Augustine picked up on the use of the word εἰκών (“icon”) in Jesus’ question about whose “icon” is on the coin and connects this with mankind being made as the “icon” of God (Gen 1:26 LXX, usually rendered “image” of God in translation, the imago Dei). Writes Augustine:
“The image of the Emperor appears differently in his son and in a piece of coin. The coin has no knowledge of its bearing the image of the prince. But you are the coin of God, and so far highly superior, as possessing mind and even life, so as to know the One whose image you bear” (Sermons on New Testament Lessons 43).
“We are God’s money. But we are like coins that have wandered away from the treasury. What was once stamped upon us has been worn down by our wandering. The One who restamps his image upon us is the One who first formed us. He himself seeks his own coin, as Caesar sought his coin. It is in this sense he says, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” to Caesar his coins, to God your very selves” (Tract. Ev. Jo. 40.9).
As people would say around here, that will preach!