It was a straight up trap from the outset. A plan to put Jesus between the proverbial “rock-and-a-hard-place.” Pay the tax and one side thinks you are a heretic and are capitulating to a pagan emperor who thinks himself divine. Don’t pay the tax and the other side sees you a seditious and a problem to be immediately dealt with. Seems like a lose-lose proposition.
Jesus’ answer is: “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Nice. Maybe we can think of it as a biblical “drop the mic” moment. There is a part of me that wants to revel in Jesus’ victory and turn the page. And there is the inner voice that tells me to wait a moment. If the Bible is really a book of questions, then what am I being asked to consider?
Is Jesus saying that the world has two distinct realms: the secular and the religious? Lots of people think so. What Jesus says is far more subtle and complicated: the coin is already the emperor’s — there’s his face stamped right on it — so give it to him. Here’s the harder question: each one of us continually lives in both realms, but what image is stamped on each one of us? When someone looks at that coin, the image tells them that it belongs to Caesar. When someone looks at each one of us, does our “image” tell the world that we belong to Christ?
The world looked at Francis of Assisi’s father, Pietro Bernadoni, and clearly saw the image of a secular man, accumulating wealth, status and position in society. The world looked at Francis of Assisi and saw something radically different. The image of God radiated from his life; there was no doubt he belonged to God. It is easy to say, “Well… Francis was holy, a saint … of course the image of God radiated from him.” He wasn’t born that way. In fact, into his early 20s he was a dilettante, a playboy, a prodigal son. But he eventually chose to let the original likeness of God shine from his life. The same likeness we possess. Surprised? We shouldn’t be. It is all right there in the beginning.
In first verses of the Book of Genesis we read, “26 Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness…27 God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Simply put, we born with and bear God’s image. God’s likeness is stamped into us and upon us. God’s signature is written across our very beings. Granted we obscure, obfuscate, and blur the image by sin, by what we do and fail to do, but we can make other choices. Francis did. We can. A little “elbow grease” and we can make our lives shine, radiating the image of Christ into the world.
Look in a mirror and search for the divine image. It is stamped right there. Look hard. Because when you see it, the harder question of “what image is stamped on each one of us?” is answered. We already are God’s. We owe God everything. Our whole and entire selves; our whole unsegmented life.
We don’t get to have a work life, a family life, a faith and church life, a life of hobbies, a life of political interest, a life of whatever we set apart and say “This part of my life…this is just for me.” We don’t get to have that. We have one life, one integrated life upon which is stamped the image of God.
But what does it mean to shine forth the image of God in these highly charged and divisive days? How do we bear forth God’s image while our families, communities, and pews are divided over political and cultural differences that can seem unbridgeable? How do we live into the all-encompassing reign of God? We make choices. We commit to not following scorched-earth, ideology-driven, divisive paths that reign within secular life. We make choices about the language we use or abuse, the stories we privilege or silence, the people we protect or oppress, the sins we confess or indulge, the truths we proclaim or deny — these make all the difference in the world.
We can’t isolate our political choices and actions, as if they don’t reflect who we are as image-bearers of our Creator. If everything belongs to God, then our spiritual lives and our political lives must cohere.
On its face, this passage from Matthew’s Gospel is about taxation. Figuring out taxes is the easy part – Jesus responded to that question. Our challenge is how to let the image of Christ shine forth. When I look to Jesus to think about how to practice my faith in the political realm, I see no path to the Kingdom that sidesteps humility, surrender, and sacrificial love. I see no evidence that telling the truth is optional. I don’t see an option to not show grace, generosity and compassion to those with whom I disagree. There is no option to reduce them to a tweet.
If I really belong to God, if I really am fashioned in God’s image, then I need to practice my faith and my politics in ways that reflect who God is — whether I like the current resident of the White House or not. It’s not a question of backing down, or of being dishonest, or of watering down my beliefs. It’s a question of remembering that the God whose image I bear is a God of endless and sacrificial love. Just look at the Cross. Consider the Eucharist. Endless and sacrificial love.
So, give Caesar what belongs to him. But always be mindful that our first loyalty is to a kingdom that will remain long after earthly empires rise and fall. “Caesar’s” realm is limited and temporal. God’s reign is eternal and all-encompassing. Give to God what is God’s.
Let us all try to live the words of St. Francis of Assisi: “Therefore hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves, so that He who gives himself totally to you may receive you totally.”