How Christians should relate to the government has been a hot topic recently. We have seen everything from peaceful protests to violent insurrection. Jesus’ time was no less polarized than our own. Various factions in Israel disagreed strongly about how to respond to Roman occupation. In Mark 12:13-17, some Pharisees and Herodians (who usually opposed each other) joined together to trap Jesus with a trick question: Should we pay taxes to the emperor or not? If Jesus said yes, they could call him out as a collaborator, and if he said no, they could report his disloyalty to the authorities. But Jesus asked them to look at a silver coin and see whose image and inscription it bore. They answered, “The emperor’s.” Jesus responded, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (NRSV).
Many Christians have interpreted Jesus’ statement to mean that we should split our allegiance, giving some aspects of our lives to the government and other aspects to God. But that isn’t what Jesus is saying. Jesus’ meaning turns on his use of the word “image.” The coin bears the image of Caesar; that means it belongs to him, so paying his taxes with his coins is fine. But the “things that are God’s” are the things that bear God’s image—namely, human beings (Gen 1:27). So we can give taxes to Caesar, but we should give ourselves—our whole lives—to God. We belong to God as God’s image-bearers.
As we approach Easter this year, let’s think about our identity. Our primary identity cannot be membership in a political party or even a nation. We must be Christians first of all, in the sense that when people look at us they should see the image of Christ in all of our words and actions. The “inscription” on our lives should read “follower of Jesus.” Let us remember the One to whom we belong, the Lord who claims our allegiance, and let us always walk in his light.