The Coin and the Question

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Saul was dressed in an expensive, imported robe. He was obviously a wealthy man. His hair gleamed and was heavy with Persian oil. His beard was trimmed short in a manner that was trendy among local Romans. He wore expensive jewelry, including a number of rings. One of them bore the mark of King Herod Antipas, for Saul was an official in his court. He stood with several other Herodians outside of Antipas’ palace in Jerusalem.

A group of Pharisees wearing simply adorned but elegant robes came down the street. They were huddled closely together and avoided contact with anyone walking near them. Their heads were wrapped with leather bands holding phylactery boxes on their foreheads. Their beards were long and flowing, as were the tassels dangling from the corners of their robes. They slowed as they approached Saul and the men with him. The two groups looked at each other warily.

Saul stepped forward and held out his forearm to one of the Pharisees, inviting a Roman handshake. He was refused, as expected. He winked at his friends.

“Hello Mathias.”

One of the Pharisees, apparently the leader, nodded.

Saul continued. “We don’t see you in this part of town often. I hope you didn’t brush against any loose women on your way here or dirty your clean robes on our common streets.”

The men behind him laughed, and the faces of the Pharisees tightened. Mathias spoke sharply in response.

“Always making jokes, Saul. Just like when we were boys, and you laughed after being thrown out of the synagogue for acts of wanton profanity. Still whoring for the Romans, are you? Still have your nose up the ass of that jackal Herod, may God smite him and all such lawbreakers and traitors.”

Several of the Herodians put their hands on their swords and stepped forward. The Pharisees neither laughed nor made any defensive move. They stood motionless. Saul held up his hand. He spoke a few sentences in Latin to the men behind him, and they relaxed. He turned back to Mathias with a smile on his face.

“Let us put this aside for now and deal with the problem at hand. We have considered the matter, and I think we have the perfect solution.”

He reached into a belt and pulled out a coin. He flipped it toward Mathias, who caught it, looked at it in his palm, and then dropped it as if it had burned him. The Pharisees looked at the silver denarius laying in the dust and took a step away from it. Mathias looked enraged, but he swallowed hard and forced a calm expression on his face.

“I’ll have to go home and wash now before I enter the Temple. Thank you so much, Saul. Is it not enough that you abandon the faith of our fathers? Do you also have to ridicule and pollute those of us who remain true to God?”

Saul stepped forward and retrieved the coin. He tossed it in the air and caught it again.

“All that fuss over a coin with the head of Caesar on it. It is not an idol. It is legal tender. Your religious ways are hopelessly outdated and irrelevant in the modern world. Still, it is precisely this reaction that will allow us to trap him. We’ll all go together to the temple tomorrow. Jesus will undoubtedly be speaking to his rabble near there. You can simply ask him if it is permissible under the law of Moses to pay taxes to Caesar or not. If he says yes, you can blather on about how he’s gone soft on the Roman question, or how he breaks the commandments without a second thought. Whatever you want to say. You can spin it however you like.”

“And if he says that it is not lawful to handle this money at all, much less pay taxes with it?”

Saul grinned. Malice glittered in his eyes.

“Then I will have him scourged and in the court before Herod within the hour. And that will be the last that anyone will hear from Jesus of Nazareth.”

~~~

Jesus sat on an elevated platform near the court of the Gentiles, surrounded by a crowd of about 75 people. There were both tradesmen and laborers present along with women and a number of children. Some of the children were listening to Jesus. Others were sitting on the ground drawing in the dirt with sticks. Jesus was in the middle of one of his famous stories, and the crowd was completely engrossed in the tale. Near the back of the crowd were a couple of temple guards who had wandered over to listen.

As Jesus spoke, his eyes lifted and he looked over the heads of the crowd at something behind them. He continued to talk, but his eyes did not return to the people, and he seemed somewhat distracted. Jesus slowed his story and then stopped speaking altogether. Some people turned around to see what he was looking at. Jesus stroked his beard thoughtfully.

“My my, look who’s coming.”

The rest of the crowd turned in time to see ten men approaching, five Pharisees and five Herodians. The people respectfully parted and allowed the men up close to Jesus.

“Pharisees and Herodians on the streets together?” Jesus held up his hands in disbelief and addressed the crowd.

“Why it must be the long-awaited year of Jubilee. Peter, I thought you were keeping an eye on the calendar for us. Jubilee has come, and I’ve been paying rent on my father’s land for half the year!”

Peter grinned, and the crowd laughed loudly. Jesus laughed too, bending at the waist and nodding to the people around him.

The ten men said nothing. They waited patiently for the laughing to stop. As the sounds died out, Jesus straightened and spoke.

“Good afternoon, Mathias. You certainly have some surprising new friends with you.”

There were a few chuckles, but the crowd sensed that something important was happening and quieted quickly.

Mathias nodded to one of the other Pharisees, who stepped forward to address Jesus.

“Rabbi, a question please.”

Jesus stepped down from the platform and went the man. He touched him on the arm and nodded.

“Certainly. What would you like to know?”

The man looked a little uncomfortable to have Jesus suddenly so close to him. He cleared his throat and offered an obviously prepared speech.

“Good rabbi, it is well known that you are among the wisest rabbis, not only in Nazareth, but yes, even here in Jerusalem. Your wisdom is known far and wide.”

Jesus inclined his head politely.

“Further, we know that you are dedicated to God’s truth. You do not worry about your reputation or the reputation of others. You simply tell the truth and never let any human concerns deter you. You are to be congratulated for this. And this is why we seek your counsel. We want to know the truth about a difficult matter.”

Jesus inclined his head again.

“Is it lawful under the law of Moses to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”

Jesus did not hurry. The ball was in his court and he intended to keep it there for awhile. He nodded and considered the issue. An exaggerated frown came onto his face and he looked at Mathias. Jesus nodded to him, as if he was offering congratulations. He then let his gaze move over to the Herodians. He looked into Saul’s eyes seriously. Saul looked amused and held his gaze. Jesus slowly looked at Saul’s hair and clothing. He looked down Saul’s robes to his expensive sandals and then back up again. Then he turned to the man who had asked the question.

“Yes, an excellent question. A very good question. Particularly since we are in the presence of some who are so dedicated to the love of God and the keeping of the Law. And others who are…” He glanced at the Herodians “… equally passionate about the laws of Rome.”

Jesus lifted his chin so that it was obvious he was addressing the crowd.

“And I shall give them an answer. Yes, I shall. But first, does anyone happen to have one of those coins we use to pay our taxes to Rome? The silver denarius. You know the one.”

The crowd whispered. Some muttered and others allowed their faces to show their disgust.

One of the Herodians stepped forward and held a coin out to Jesus.

“Thank you, good sir. We are fortunate that the Pharisees and their Herodian friends have brought one of the coins in question with them. And he had it so readily available. Right there in his pocket; just like that.”

Many in the crowd laughed and whispered to each other. The Pharisees looked uncomfortable and embarrassed. A couple of them inched farther away from the Herodians.

Jesus reached for the coin but then pulled his hand back suddenly. He fumbled in his robe until he found a small cloth. He waved it to the crowd, and then took the coin from the man with the cloth, being very careful not to let it touch his hands.

“I don’t carry these coins myself, of course. Don’t even like to touch them, what with the second commandment and all. So I’m glad these gentlemen had one handy.”

The crowd burst into laughter. The Pharisees’ faces darkened with anger, and they shifted their weight back and forth uncomfortably.

Jesus turned and mounted the raised platform again.

“I wanted to look at the coin so we could see whose face is on it. Whose face is this anyway?”

Jesus acted as though he had never seen a silver denarius before. One of the Herodians said, “Caesar’s.”

Jesus looked surprised. “Oh, Caesar.” He looked at the head on the coin. He turned it over and saw the image of a woman seated on a throne. “And this must be his lovely mother Livia on the other side.” He turned his head slightly and made a mock spitting sound, “Ptuh, ptuh ptuh.” The crowd roared again. One older man laughed so hard he began to choke. A friend pounded him on the back, causing another wave of laughter to rise from the crowd.

Jesus motioned with his hands to quiet everyone, as if the crowd was being rude and he was trying to get them to be a little more polite.

“Now now, please.”

When the crowd was silent, Jesus looked directly toward the ten men.

“Well then, why don’t you give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.”

He tossed the coin back toward the ten men. The pharisees backed away from the flying coin. One of the Herodians caught it and held it defiantly in his fist. Jesus fell silent and stood staring at the men. The people in the crowd stared at them as well. The men waited to see if Jesus had anything else to say. He did not.

There was no easy way to leave. That became apparent, so the men turned a few at a time, trying to look dignified, and walked away. As the last of them was leaving, Jesus called out.

“Mathias!”

Mathias stopped and turned around.

“I know you, and I know your family. You’re better than this. And you’re not the sort of man who would normally cast his lot with the Herodians. There are some things more polluting even than the Romans and their money. Think on these things.”

Mathias stared back at Jesus. He licked his lips once, started to say something, then turned and walked away.

Information for those not familiar with the gospels or the culture of that day

This story is found in all three synoptic gospels. My dramatization draws upon all three. There are only subtle differences to be found in them.

Matthew 22:15-22
Mark 12:13-17
Luke 20:20-26

The Pharisees were religious conservatives, we might say, while the Herodians were supporters of the very secular King Herod, who was a Jew, but in name only.

Some scholars think that the Jewish people of that time were in a bind when it came to Roman taxes. Rome required that they pay taxes, among them a poll tax. Rome issued a special silver denarius for that particular tax. This coin had the head of Caesar on one side and a picture of his mother on the other. An inscription around the head said that Caesar was divine, making this an idol and a clear violation of the Second Commandment, which prohibits making graven images of God. Everyone probably paid the tax, but there was a lot of theoretical discussion about whether or not doing so put one in violation of their religious laws.

The Jewish Jubilee Year was supposed to come at the end of every 49 years. Every seventh day was a sabbath day, every seventh year a sabbath year, and every 49 years a Jubilee. The Jubilee year was to be marked by some fairly radical moves toward justice, including the unusual practice of returning all lands to their original owners. This kept all the wealth and power from accumulating in the hands of a few. Even if a poor family lost their land and had to pay rent to use it, in the Jubilee year they would get their land back. I have read that it is unclear whether the Jubilee year was ever actually practiced. The economic chaos that would have occurred might have prevented this from actually happening. Even if it was not practiced, the Jubilee year would still have been a symbol of future justice.

I have Jesus using the coin as a prop to illustrate how innocent he was. They came to accuse him of being “soft on Rome” and he turned the tables on them and had them produce the coin in question. It’s a bit of an exegetical stretch, but I believe the implications of them carrying the coin but accusing Jesus would have been understood by the audience. Frederick Dale Bruner, in his Matthew commentary series, thinks this is possible. He’s the only commentator I read that had this idea. I assume it is original to him.

It’s a bit of a stretch, but the point of these stories is to reveal what was known to the original audience to a modern audience.

 

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