When Jesus was asked by the Pharisees and the Herodians whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not, they were not really interested in resolving the question and Jesus knew it. (Mt. 22: 15–27) They were, of course, trying to trap Jesus into giving a reply that would alienate his supporters. But if Jesus didn’t exactly resolve the question, he gave a firm answer that eluded the trap. It is significant that the Pharisees and Herodians, who normally hated each other, united in the cause of discrediting Jesus, just as they would unite in having Jesus executed when their scheme of discrediting failed.
The question that the Pharisees and Herodians didn’t want answered was: Who owns you? The Jewish tradition was quite clear that it was Yahweh who claimed ownership over the entire Jewish nation, so that each individual person was owned by Yahweh. Not only that, but the prophet Isaiah also claimed Yahweh’s ownership of King Cyrus of Persia, the most powerful ruler in the known world at the time. Yahweh claimed to have anointed Cyrus “to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes.” (Is. 45: 1) Admittedly, the prophet realized that Cyrus did not know that he had been claimed by Yahweh, (Is. 45: 4) but Cyrus was nonetheless doing the work Yahweh wanted done, namely, allowing the Jews to return from the Babylonian exile. All of this might sound like a good deal for Cyrus, but not really. Cyrus seemed to think he owned all of the people in his empire, including the Jew,s and he was moving the chess pieces for the sake of his agenda, which included weakening Babylon in favor of a Jewish restoration that wouldn’t be strong enough to threaten him. But Yahweh not only claimed ownership over all of the people Cyrus thought he owned but Yahweh also claimed ownership of Cyrus himself. Cyrus, of course, hadn’t signed the dotted line on that.
The Pharisees who were questioning Jesus took a hard line on Isaiah’s perspective and insisted that they were owned by Yahweh and not the Roman Emperor who, like Cyrus, was claiming ownership over everybody in the Empire, including the Jews. The Herodians perhaps paid lip service to Yahweh’s theoretical ownership of them but in practice, they acknowledged the Emperor’s ownership while treating Yahweh like an absentee landlord. The Pharisees and Herodians were fighting each other over the allegiance of the Jewish people as a whole. Although we can assume that most of the people accepted Yahweh’s ownership rather than the Empire’s, they weren’t so sure about allowing the Pharisees to claim ownership over them. If Jesus had said unambiguously that it was lawful for Jews to pay taxes to Caesar, then the people who were following him would have been disillusioned in their leader and would have forsaken him. If Jesus had said unambiguously that it was not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, the Pharisees and Herodians could have handed him over to the Romans with a ready-made charge of treason.
As it happened, Jesus unambiguously affirmed Yahwe’s ownership of the people but in a way that took the wind out of the sails of the Pharisees and Herodians. Apparently not having a coin to produce himself, he asked the questioners to produce one. The very act of pulling out a coin with Caesar’s image on it undermined their attempt to discredit Jesus since simply having one of Caesar’s coins acknowledged the Empire’s ownership of them. Jesus’ emphasis on the word “image” is most significant here. The Jewish people could hardly help but recall that at the beginning of Genesis, Yahweh created humanity in Yahweh’s image, thus claiming total ownership of all humanity. Jesus suggests that one can give a coin with Caesar’s image back to Caesar, but as to one’s self, a self made in God’s image, that should be totally given to God.
In the opening of St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians Paul tells them that they are chosen by God. (1 Thess. 1: 4) This is a new kind of ownership, one based on divine initiative (as was the case with the Jews and Cyrus) but also based on relationship. Paul goes on to write about the Thessalonians imitating him and his fellow evangelists and, thus also imitating the Lord. (1 Thess. 1: 6) This imitation includes enduring persecution just as Paul had endured persecution in imitation of Christ who was crucified. The enthusiasm for the faith that Paul commends and celebrates gives us a picture of what it really means to be owned by God through Christ. Can we acknowledge God’s ownership of us as fervently as did Paul and the Thessalonians?