What Belongs to God? October 22, 2017
What Belongs to God?
I remember a line from the movie Jerry Maguire—“Show me the money!”
That’s essentially what Jesus says to these religious leaders. They are afraid of his popularity, and they want to get rid of him. So they try to trap him with a politically loaded question. “Tell us what you think, Jesus. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”
We’re not talking about income tax, or sales tax. This was a head tax, imposed by the Roman overlords on every Jew. It was one more reminder that the land was occupied by a foreign power. The head tax was the equivalent of a day’s wage, and it was especially burdensome for the poor. It was the difference between having supper or going to bed hungry. The poor are always the most oppressed in any system of domination.
The authorities thought they had Jesus on the ropes. This was a lose–lose question. If Jesus answers “No, it’s not lawful,” the Romans would kill him as a threat to their domination. On the other hand, if Jesus answers “Yes”, he will lose his credibility with his followers, most of whom are poor.
But Jesus is aware of their malice, and neatly side–steps the question. “Give me a coin.” Show me the money! Jesus asks them whose image they see on the coin.
Be aware that they are in the temple precincts. The leaders who pride themselves on keeping the law have carried an image of Caesar into the very heart of Jewish faith. Even worse is that the coin is inscribed, “Caesar, son of God, high priest.”
It’s blasphemy to even have this coin. Idolatry. They’ve been caught. The ones who would trap Jesus have been trapped themselves. They’ve carried a coin with Caesar’s image into God’s temple.
I can imagine a small smile crossing Jesus’ lips as he asks them about the image on the coin. They stutter and stammer. “It’s ummm … well, it’s ummmm … well, it’s the emperor.”
“Then give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and give to God what belongs to God.” Render unto Caesar … and all that.
Not only has Jesus avoided the trap, he’s turned it back on those who would trap him. They walk away in amazement.
Now some people interpret this conflict story as if Jesus is describing a world which is neatly divided into two parts: over here is the secular realm ruled by Caesar; and over there is the sacred realm ruled by God. In this light, our job as followers of Jesus is to figure out what is sacred and what is secular, and then do our best to keep the two spheres separate. You know, separation of church and state and all that. Some things belong to Caesar and some things belong to God. Just don’t get them confused.
There was a furore recently in London, England about a church known as the Musicians’ Church. It has been taken over by conservatives, and they have decided that the church can no longer be rented out for secular music concerts. They exemplify this kind of interpretation. The church belongs to God. Secular music belongs to the secular realm.
I think they’ve missed the point. Jesus never divided the world in that way. The whole world is permeated with God for him. All of life shows the hand of God. All of life is sacred. The idea to separate the world into sacred and secular spheres would never have occurred to him. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it, “The whole world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
This conflict story is another occasion for Jesus to show us that our whole lives are included in God’s divine economy. The question for us is not how to keep the two spheres separate. The question for us is how does our loyalty to God affect the decisions we make in all of our lives? How do we live in this world as people who belong to God?
I imagine Jesus turning that coin over and saying quietly, “Yes, the image stamped on here is clearly the image, the eikoh (eikon) of Caesar. You, on the other hand, are marked with the eikoh of God. You are created in God’s image, and you dare not give to Caesar what belongs to God.”
Here’s the thing. You and I, we are eikohs of God in the world. We are marked with the image of God. From the very beginning, we say, we are created in the image of God. We bear the image of God in our bodies, in our very selves. And Jesus tells us to honour God’s image in the way we live.
The question in this story is not about Caesar. The question is about God. The question is about our relationship with God. The question is about us as eikohs of God.
In our daily dialogue with God, how do we live faithfully in the world? How do the decisions we make reflect our identity as people who belong to God?
How does the way we spend our money reflect God’s passion for justice?
How does who we vote for demonstrate God’s hunger for righteousness?
How does how we spend our time exhibit God’s priorities in the world?
How does our care for creation bear out the conviction that “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it”? (Psalm 24:1)
How do our chequebooks and wallets and investment accounts witness to our identity as people who belong to God?
It’s not that Caesar is unimportant. Government is necessary; taxes are necessary to support good order in society. Canadians support a social safety net, and we are willing to pay taxes to support universal health care and education and the other benefits. So we render to Caesar.
But our deepest loyalty is not to Caesar. Our deepest loyalty is to God, the God of life, the God of wholeness, the God of shalom, the God whose grandeur fills the world.
Our deepest loyalty is to the God we love with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. We live out our loyalty to God by loving our neighbours as ourselves.
This, I think, is what it means to be an icon of God. This is what it means to give to God what belongs to God.
I’m also aware that my computer monitor is filled with icons. The purpose of the icon is that once you click on it, it begins to run a program. To reframe Jesus’ reference, the question for us is, “What program begins to run when you click on yourself as an icon of God?”
My whole life belongs to God. One of the offering sentences in the BCP reminds us that, “All things come from you, O God, and of your own have we given you.” That means that I can’t say, “this part belongs to God, and this part doesn’t.” All that I am, all that I have, all that I think, all that I say—in all of it, I am the eikoh of God. My life is not partly sacred and partly secular. It is a whole, and all of it belongs to God.
When Jesus answers these religious leaders, he turns everything upside down. We can’t divide life into that which belongs to God and what which does not. What belongs to God? All of it. We don’t belong to Caesar. We belong — heart and soul, body and mind — to the living God, and we give to God what belongs to God.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt
October 22, 2017 (20th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 29)
Matthew 22: 15–22
Exodus 33: 12–23
1 Thessalonians 1: 1–10