The Denarius Question

So [the scribes and chief priests] watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor.  Luke 20:20

“Let us devise a question that will trip him up,” say the Pharisees.  “We’ve been dealing with him since the beginning and we’ve figured out where his weaknesses are.  It’s the followers who hang on his every word—they expect him to set up the new kingdom with himself as the king.  You’ve heard them shout “Son of David!” at him, haven’t you?  That may not be his plan—some of the things he says seem in direct contradiction to it—but who knows what his plan is?  He’s notoriously hard to pin down . . . But anyway—let us choose someone to ask a political question, and watch how he squirms.”

The chief priests, elders and scribes agree that tripping up Jesus of Nazareth will be trickier than they first thought.  Accordingly they allow the Pharisees to devise a question and a questioner: young Jacob, a promising student from the provinces with the proper fresh-faced country demeanor.  They even role-play the teacher’s possible answers so that Jacob will be able to counter each one.

Next day, as the teacher is again in the temple court, holding forth while the priestly class stands on the sidelines observing and noting, here comes Jacob—the very picture of earnest rabbinical zeal.  “Please, Rabbi—I have a question.”

The teacher pauses, nods at him to go on.

“It’s troubled me for some time, so I rejoiced to hear of your arrival.  Your reputation precedes you—I know you’re a faithful teacher from the Blessed One, and you’re not swayed by the latest fad.  Nor do you—forgive the expression—suck up to the elites.”

The priests and elders steal glances at each other.  That was a Pharisaical jab at them, but well played—just the right mix of deference and defiance.  And now for the hook:

“Sir, please tell me.  Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”

Zing!  The trap sounds even better spoken than when they’d planned it.  If he says Yes, his peasant admirers will soon be up in arms, not to mention the Zealots among his own followers.  If he says No, word will get back to Pilate himself, who will kindly save them the trouble of dispatching the troublemaker.  Either way—

His eyes are upon Jacob’s Pharisee friends: serene, even amused.  And not very comfortable. “Do any of you have a denarius?  Show it to me.”


Tobias, the ranking Pharisee, bristles at the way the man orders them about.  But yes, he has a coin and everyone, following the teacher’s lead, is looking his way.  He lifts his hand and beckons to Jacob, who obediently trots over and takes a denarius from him.

Once the coin is in his hand, the teacher studies it as though he’d never seen one before.  He flips it gracefully, a whirl of gold.  He knows how to command attention—they’ll give him that.

Holding the denarius between thumb and forefinger, he raises it, face out.  “Whose inscription do you see?”

“Why . . . Caesar’s, of course,” Jacob mutters warily.  They hadn’t anticipated this resopnse.

“And whose face?”

“The same.  Caesar’s.”

“Then–”  He tosses the coin back to Jacob, who fumbles the catch.  “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.  And give to God the things that are God’s.”

“But . . .”  Jacob is flailing around for a follow-up question, as none of his prepared ones seem to fit.

“There’s your answer,” the teacher says.

Awkwardly, Jacob bows, then turns to give the coin back to Tobias.  The temple delegation has already begun their retreat, followed by the Pharisees.  He has to run a few steps to catch up with them.

Meanwhile he’s puzzling over the teacher’s answer, and while reaching out to Tobias, it strikes him like a douse of cold water.

“Oh!  I see it now: what bears Caesar’s image lawfully belongs to Caesar, but that which bears God’s image . . . namely us, of course.  Brilliant answer!  Did you notice how he gets right to the heart of the Law, about loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and–”

“Thanks.”  Tobias snatches his denarius back, his voice curling with sarcasm.  “We hardly need your instruction to see that.”  They walk on in a sour mood while young Jacob holds back, looking toward the teacher.  What a way he has, of making old things seem new.  He would be worth hearing again, for sure.


For the original post in this series, go here.




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