This Sunday I'm preaching in the church where I was minister for 18 years, and where I am now a member. The text I've been given is Mark 12.12-17. It's the one about giving Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and giving God what belongs to God. The powers that be need to shut Jesus up, they need to discredit or destroy him. If they don't he'll bring disaster on Jerusalem.
The question was a hot topic - is it lawful, right, to pay taxes to Caesar. And as Jesus sometimes did, he turned the question into a test of truth, integrity and decisions about what matters most in life. He asked for a coin. He answered their question with a question, destabilising their certainties, wrong-footing their assumptions, and compelling them to acknowledge and expose their ulterior motives.
"Who's image is this" is not a primary class level question. Jesus knew, they knew, the crowd knew whose image it was. Point is, no self-respecting Pharisee would look on an image of one who claimed to be a god. By saying Caesar they already conceded that they were compliant with Rome when it came to civic loyalty and public standpoint. Maximus Pontifex was a religious claim, and it was stamped on that same coin. So politics and religion collide; Caesar and God are competitors; sacred and secular coalesce in a question about ultimate loyalty.
All of which raises interesting questions for us today. Who are today's Caesars? What are today's economic divine wannabes? What power, and powers, compete for the minds and hearts, demanding ultimate loyalty? When conscience is pushed to decide right and wrong, whose side is the default side, God or Caesar, Kingdom of God or Empire? Whose image commands our love, loyalty and even our life? In a globalised world of economic levers which are pulled elsewhere but can devastate communities in faraway places, how do we know what's a caesar issue and what is a God issue?
Come Sunday, I'll hope to have some answers to these questions. But then again, I may only be left with more and harder questions. Following Jesus is about cross-bearing, obedience to teaching which is counter-cultural and anti-Empire, and we may have to lose our lives to save them, forgo the world to save our soul.