In contrast to a philosophy of “(God-less) humanism” which has been criticized by many Christians today, the view of Jesus and other first- century Jewish thinkers presents a “theocentric (God-centered) humanism.” It places supreme value on the individual human being, precisely because each person has been imprinted with the Imago Dei. The increasing importance attributed to the individual in first- century Judaism is expressed in a well-known saying found in the Mishnah:
Therefore, but a single man was created in the world, to teach that if any man has caused a single soul to perish Scripture imputes it to him as though he had caused a whole world to perish; and if any man saves (the life of) a single soul, Scripture imputes it to him as though he had saved (the lives of) a whole world (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5).
Jesus also employed this notion to justify his healing on the Sabbath: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath…to save a (single) soul or to destroy it?” (Lk. 6:9). Jesus took opportunity of the man’s need for healing to teach those present concerning the value God places on even a single human life.
We are now able to recognize the Jewish “theocentric humanism” which undergirded Jesus’ masterful rejoinder to his inquisitors. He transformed their trickery into an opportunity to articulate the Jewish belief concerning the Imago Dei: “Give unto Caesar that which bears his image, and give unto God that which bears His image!” Although intentionally indirect, Jesus’ audience would certainly have understood his thrust. It is only we, who are removed by time and space from the event, who struggle to understand his message.
Jesus was no liberation theologian. The priorities contained in his response set clear limits on the politics of violence. If at all possible, we should live at peace (Rom. 13:1). Like other Jewish Sages in those tumultuous days, Jesus challenged the priorities of those who had taken up the sword to establish a kingdom “of flesh and blood.” Jesus, instead, proclaimed the advent of the kingdom of Heaven. Questioned by Pontius Pilate about his political intentions in the fateful hours before his death, Jesus once again declared the emptiness of his accusers’ charge: “My kingdom is not of this world….”(Jn. 18:36).