The question of payment of taxes to Caesar, therefore, had far- reaching political implications. If Jesus publicly affirmed the requirement to pay these imperial tributes, he risked eroding the support of the people. On the other hand, if he questioned the legitimacy of the taxes, he would be subject to charges of political sedition. Jesus faced a “no-win” situation. Nevertheless, as the conclusion of the episode indicates, his opponents were impressed by the ingenuity of his answer.
Jesus’ reply resembles the sentiments of other prominent sages of the first century who questioned the aims and means used by the Zealots in their unsuccessful rebellion. After the destruction of the Temple, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai saw the daughter of Nicodemus (Jn. 3:1), who because of her severe hunger was picking grains of barley from the dung of an Arab horse. The sage lamented,
As long as Israel is doing the will of God, no nation or kingdom shall rule over it. But if they are not doing the will of God he will deliver them into the hand of the lowest nation and not only this, but under the legs of the beast of the lowest nation (Mechilta de-Rabbi Ishmael on Exod. 19:1).
Implicit in Rabban Yohanan’s statement is a biting critique of the Zealot revolt. The struggle had been misguided and ended in disaster. According to Yohanan, true redemption comes not through armed conflict, but through repentance and adherence to the Torah. The movement should have been marked by a priority given to humble submission to God’s reign — the kingdom of Heaven. According to Israel’s Sages this alone could have hastened liberty and the removal of the yoke of foreign oppression:
Everyone who takes upon himself the yoke of the Torah removes from his shoulders the yoke of the government and daily sorrows. But whoever removes the yoke of the Torah will be burdened with the yoke of government and daily sorrows” (Mishnah, Avot 3:6).
David Flusser has suggested that in the vocabulary of the first century, “the kingdom of Heaven” became an anti-Zealot slogan (Jesus, pp. 105-106). On the lips of Jesus, the phrase was also used to identify his movement and indicates Jesus’ high self-awareness of the importance of his life and teaching.
The words of Jesus suggest that his understanding of the spiritual nature of “the kingdom” was in accord with the Sages who complained concerning allies of the Zealots, “The rulers of the cities of Judah, who have put off the yoke of Heaven and assumed the yoke of the kingdom of flesh and blood” (Avot de-Rabbi Nathan, Schechter ed., p. 72; cf. 1 Cor. 15:50; Eph. 6:12).
Not only does Jesus’ opinion of the Zealot movement resemble that of the Jewish Sages, his rhetorical response — “Whose image is on this coin?” — is shaped by the idiomatic expressions of his contemporaries. Once Hillel challenged his disciples who questioned his view that bathing in a bathhouse should be considered fulfillment of a mitzvah (biblical commandment): “If a king is honored when his statues are being washed in the parks and public places, how much more is the Creator honored when man, who was created in the image of God, washes himself” (Leviticus Rabbah on Lev. 34:3).
The retorts of Hillel and Jesus exemplify innovative developments in Jewish thought during the Second Temple period which were established on the biblical notion that man was created in the image of God — Imago Dei (Gen. 1:27). This principle is central to Jewish ethical imperatives. Both Jesus and Hillel voiced the opinion that the Torah is summed up in the charge, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Jesus: Mt. 22:39-40; Hillel: Babylonia Talmud, Shabbat 31a; cf. Rom. 13:8; Gal. 5:14; James 2:8). Jewish thinkers saw significance in the fact that the command “Love your neighbor” is followed immediately in the biblical text by the declaration, “I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:18b). For Jewish readers, the combination of these two phrases signified that we are to love our neighbor, because he or she, like us, bears the divine image.
Check back Friday for part 3.
See also Jerusalem Perspective