The Coin in the Temple

By Rev. David Wilson Rogers |  July 12, 2014

            It is not hard to imagine the carnival atmosphere within the massive limestone courtyard. Travelers from great distances were all milling about attending to the important religious and spiritual observance. Faithful submission to religious doctrine, tradition, and ritual were central to their life and, with the Passover only days away, the atmosphere was charged.
            The Teacher was also there. Two days earlier, he had come into the city with a noisy and excitable procession. With joyous shouts of Hosanna, they welcomed him as a promised, and long-hoped-for conqueror in the name of God. Then, on the next day, the Teacher proceeded to create all havoc and chaos as he overturned the tables of the moneychangers and merchants in the temple. It was an act that rocked the festal atmosphere of the city and raised a lot of suspicion.
            The moneychangers were critical according to the rules governing their worship. The religiously offensive coin of Roman commerce was deemed unacceptable to God, and thus unacceptable for any use in the Temple. For one thing, the coins prominently displayed a graven image of Caesar and proclaimed the Roman Emperor lord. In addition, the practice also had economic advantages for the religious leadership of the Temple. It provided a nice steady income for those able to charge a fee for the currency exchanges.
            It did not take long for those most directly—and financially—impacted by the Teacher’s work to step forth and start challenging his legitimacy, authority, and moral credibility. Only one day after disrupting their cash-flow, they besieged him with beleaguered questions and legal challenges designed only to entrap the Teacher in the snares of his own beliefs. Their way of life, spiritual authority, and mutually-beneficial relationship with Rome depended on shutting him down.
            In one of these volatile exchanges, the Teacher responded to a question about the legitimacy of paying taxes to the pagan Emperor. Aside from the idolatrous implications of the coin, the tax was believed by many to be abusive and regressive in nature. Even when justifiable for legitimate purposes, the practices of those tasked with collecting the tax were frequently corrupt, greedy, and despised by much of the taxpaying public. Tax is never popular, but this one was particularly hated. Yet, with the despised nature of the tax, along with the strict prohibitions of even having the offensive coins in the presence of God, the leaders were conveniently able to produce the coins when the Teacher simply asked to see the currency. Without even so much as a blink, they were violating their own rules.
            The subtle irony illustrates a volatile trap into which faithful followers of Jesus Christ can quickly, and blindly, fall. The religious authorities conspired and lied to destroy the authority of the Teacher by crafting a campaign of fear, religious rhetoric, and political maneuvering. They won, or so they thought, when the one they sought to overpower died on a cross at the end of the week. The trap was holding so tightly to narrow doctrines, beliefs, and comfortable power structures that they were unable to see the true presence of God right before their eyes.
            Jesus—the Teacher—says that one is to give to the Roman Emperor what is due the Emperor and to give to God what is due God. All the campaigns of fear, religious rhetoric, and political maneuvering largely serve to feed the engines of governance, power, and personal security. We must ask ourselves, is God served by forcing our values on others and protecting our own security, or by humbling ourselves before God in prayer and loving service?