Caesar wants an empire. But God wants you.
“There is that in you that no one can destroy or diminish because it belongs completely to God.” - Thomas Merton
I find it amazing that as Congress is looking to do a major overhaul to the tax codes, the lectionary give us this passage to think about. The U.S. is quite familiar with disagreements around the question of paying taxes.
In 1773, the phrase “taxation without representation is tyranny” was first coined. Three years later we’re an independent nation. And today we’re still arguing over, you guessed it, taxes!
READ: MATTHEW 22:15-22
Similar cries were heard among the Jewish people back in first century Palestine, which had become subject under the Roman Empire. Like most of us today, the locals were not too keen on paying taxes especially when it supported an occupying army in their homeland.
Just as America had loyalists to the English crown, the Emperor had the Herodians who willingly paid taxes and loved Caesar. Stranger than that, they also colluded with the Pharisees who, for religious reasons, were opposed to Caesar, let alone paying him anything.
These two opposing groups used a question about taxes to trick Jesus. It was a perfect set-up, a political conundrum designed to be that “gotcha!” moment to get Jesus in trouble, and strip him of his growing popularity. But leave it up to Jesus to find a loophole.
We’ve seen this before with Jesus, answering his inquisitor’s question with another question. He first asks for a coin (notice that he doesn’t have one). Then he asks, “Whose image is this coin?” When they identified correctly, all Jesus says is “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” He leaves it up to them to decide who gets what.
The question Jesus asks still lingers with us today: What do we owe… and to whom? One needs to look no further than the coin in our own pockets and purses.
The 50% tax rate was a severe burden to a peasant family like Jesus’ in Galilee.
This is a powerful statement in that as Shane Claiborne notes in his book Jesus for President, “Caesar’s coins were floating all over the empire, stamped with Caesar’s image. Inscribed were the words ‘Long live the Son of God’.”
To a good and faithful Jew, Caesar’s coins broke a number of commandments. But to everyone throughout the empire, “they were a visual sign that the entire economy belonged to Caesar, without him everything would fall apart.” Today you might say this was his part of his branding campaign.
However, Jesus knows a little something about image and idolatry. He also seems to know that there are two sides to every coin. What Jesus intimates but does not verbalize is an even bigger question:
Who and What bears God’s image?
The Scriptures assert that human beings are created by God and in God’s own image. Paul even declares God’s imprint is on all of life, and therefore no one is excused from knowing God. You could say our one definitive, universal characteristic is God’s divine inscription etched within us. It gives us our worth and purpose.
When we bear the image of God we also bear the responsibility.
Just as Christ did when he walked in public or prayed in private, we too must always be seeking God in our midst. So why is it then that we continue to chase after that which is Caesar’s?
Jesus knew what was going on. He knew this was a trap. He also understood a royal coin, crown, or robe can bear Caesar’s image. These are material things; objects that thieves can steal, rust can destroy and moths can eat.
You and I do not belong to Caesar, but to God whose dwells within us. To quote Thomas Merton, “There is that in you that no one can destroy or diminish because it belongs completely to God.”
Caesar is finite and life taking. God is infinite and life giving.
In keeping with our theme to live in Christlikeness, we must constantly struggle to see and recognize God in every living thing. Including ourselves! We bear God's image as Christ did. And like him we have to let others see that divine indwelling of love.
“Jesus was one human person among many, just as the Church is one organization among many. But Jesus is the Christ; he is Emmanuel, “God with us,” revealing God's love to us. As his people, we not only share the image, but the name as well. We are called together as the church that makes his presence visible in the world. The Pharisees had trouble recognizing Jesus back then, and I’m not convinced we fair any better today.
Our biggest issue is not paying taxes, but paying attention to the divine image within us all. This can be difficult because when we look at each other, or in the mirror, we tend to see those inscriptions that bear the mark of the world: We’re not rich enough, or pretty enough, smart enough, good enough, or just too plain “enough” to receive God’s love. We need to flip that coin around.
When the blind and the lame were brought to him what did Jesus do? When he saw the crowd hungry, or his friends weeping, how did he react? When people spat on him, or the demoniacs threw curses at him, did Jesus marginalize, discriminate or penalize them? No.
Jesus recognizes the divine dwelling within each person, and shows us all his compassion and love; forgiving us, healing us, and feeding us. Jesus opens our eyes so that we might see God within him. He is standing beside us…alive in our midst…in you and in me.
As the children of God, and especially as the church of Christ, we must radiate the love of God to the darkness of the world, loving both God and our neighbors, and all living things minted and stamped with God’s imprint. Even Caesar.
According to the ancient mystics, “God loves his image in us forever.” When God sees us, even at our worst, he is able to see the divine image etched in our soul. Therefore, it’s impossible for God NOT to love us. He may not love what we are doing, but nonetheless, God loves us no matter what. I say that a lot too, because we frequently forget; turning off our divine light way too fast.
If you are to remember anything from today, it’s this:
Caesar wants an empire. But God wants you.
Do not let Caesar’s world define you. Instead allow God’s universal love to come alive in you.
Let the peace of God shape you. And follow God’s joy as it leads you to be the person you were made to be. One with God. One with Christ. One with Spirit. And One with each other.
Because you possess that sacred indwelling of God’s Spirit, you are worth what God is worth. You are precious as Christ is precious.
So give Caesar his damn coins. Your flesh and blood has a value that cannot be calculated.
Bartlett, David, Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox) 2011. pp. 188-193.
Claiborne, Shane. Jesus for President. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan) 2008. pp.116-17.
Nouwen, Henri. Bread for the Journey, October 21 devotional.
Thomas Merton quote is from a devotional by Richard Rohr, October 2017.