The story is about the confrontation and clash of two social systems. Jesus has made it clear that his kingdom is not of this earth, and just about everything he has said is an upending of everything we know, believe, and value. It’s a little difficult to see how a little penny (denarius) can bring the whole question of clashing kingdoms to a culmination, but remember he is headed to Jerusalem to be killed, so even the smallest things have import at this stage.
The very possibility that such a question would arise, though, belies the reality that people understood very well that his teachings had not just spiritual import, but social, societal, and political implications as well. He was properly perceived as prescribing a comprehensive change of hearts, minds, and ways. And therefore the powers that be are out to stop him. Power, as we learn, will stop at nothing to be stopped at all. Power uses its power to retain and advance power. Here the powers of heaven and earth spin on a penny.
The question has all the airs of innocence: Should we pay taxes? It’s a simple yes/no of which either answer will sink him deeply into the abyss of irrelevance or into the limelight of insurgency.
“Bring a penny,” he briefly posed, “and I’ll asked you a question of blatant simplicity: What do you see on it?”
Unsuspecting, they answered him clearly: “Caesar.”
With the swing of a shrewd sword, Jesus disarms his detractors. “Give back to Caesar what is already Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” The kingdoms of this world, and the kingdoms of God are not in inherent, necessary conflict. Harmony is not only possible but desirable. Both church and state have their clear and distinct roles, and those two roles coincide, not clash. We have legitimate obligations to the government to have the resources to maintain a just society. We also have legitimate obligations to God to have the resources to maintain righteousness.
Why does this matter at this point in the story, or at all? The crucifixion conflict around the corner will bring a crown of Rome and Jerusalem smashing scornfullly on Jesus’ head, and all the while we know that the kingdom of sin and death is being fatally wounded by the Kingdom of our God. But we are told later, as well as here, that the kingdoms of heaven and earth are not axiomatically at odds, for all will be redeemed, and the kingdoms of this earth will become the kingdom of our God, and He shall reign for ever and ever, amen.
This story puts a penny deposit on the story of boundless prosperity.