October 19, 2014
All That We Are Comes From God
The Rev. Brad Mullis
“Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.” These words of Jesus have become a sort of proverb, or a phrase we toss about when reporting our visit to our tax preparer. “I’ve been rendering unto Caesar.” Many folks who know little of scripture still have heard “Render unto Caesar.” But if we dig a little into this brief episode, we’ll find some deeper currents flowing in this exchange.
First, the combination of people approaching Jesus is intriguing. Matthew tells us that the Pharisees approach Jesus in company with the Herodians. The Pharisees did not want to give money to their pagan oppressors and so were opposed to paying taxes to Rome. On the other hand, King Herod’s position of power came courtesy of the Romans, so the Herodians had a vested interest in keeping the Roman taxes paid. Therefore, the Pharisees and the Herodians each reflected one of the horns of the dilemma.
Then came the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?” This reference is obviously to Jewish Law, the Law of Moses. Clearly, it was lawful to pay the tax by Rome’s standards; the question was whether it was proper for a Jew to do so.
After many tries, it would seem that they have finally constructed the perfect trap for Jesus. There seems to be no way out. He can’t speak against the tax, for that would anger the Herodians and make him guilty of treason against Rome. He could not speak in favor of the tax without alienating most of the crowds that followed him.
Jesus asks for one of the coins used in paying the tax. This is Jesus’ own trap, because it proves that at least one of his questioners is a hypocrite. For the coin used to pay the tax was a silver Denarius with the image of Caesar on one side, and on the reverse, the image of a woman labelled Pax or peace personified. The coins were against Jewish Law, which prohibited graven images. Carrying the image of Caesar into the Temple was considered sinful. But note here that when Jesus asks for a Denarius, one is handed to Jesus in no time.
Jesus then asks the question that everyone in Israel could have answered without ever looking at a coin. The NRSV renders this question as “Whose head is this and whose title?” That translation misses the point of his argument. The word they translate as “head” is “icon,” a Greek word better translated as “image.” When they answer Jesus’ question, saying that the image and title are “Caesar’s,” Jesus replies that they are to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Again, the word “give” could also be translated as “give back” rather than “give” or “render.” Give Caesar back those things that are Caesar’s. It is his coin anyway, who cares if you give Caesar back his coin for the tax?
Then Jesus gives the most amazing line of the short encounter when he continues by saying that we are to “give back to God the things that are God’s.” That line is the kicker. It leaves everyone calculating what exactly is God’s that we are supposed to give back. And in case you were wondering, the clue was the word “image.”
Jesus’ answer came from the first chapter of Genesis, which says, “And God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness,’” and goes on to state “God created humankind in his Image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
The principle is this: Just as the coin has Caesar’s icon on it, so it is Caesar’s. If Jesus were to examine us as he examined that coin he was handed, what image would he see? The image we bear, in various stages of distortion and disrepair, is the image of God, the imago dei. God made us, calls us beloved, and we belong to God. Our value defies all measure in coins. All we are, all we have, all we ever hope to have – our time, talent, and money, — is from God and belongs to God.
The Pharisees and Herodians wanted to make Jesus claim another God, but Jesus would have no part of that. For Jesus, this trap of the Pharisees emphasizes that we belong to God alone, and when we realize that, we can be free to see the other claims on our lives for what they are. And there are many claims on our lives, and many of them are actually good things. That’s why we make idols of them, because they are good. But they are not ultimately good. Jesus knew that Caesar’s power was not ultimate and that Caesar was not God, and that paying taxes or not paying taxes was not the determiner of his value. So, he was free to say, “If it’s Caesar’s, give it to him,” without giving himself to Caesar.
Jesus’ response defines our ultimate loyalty as belonging to God and God alone. Any other loyalty is secondary.
This text is often used to talk about stewardship in terms of what we give to the church. But this is no passage on the tithe. For if giving 10 percent of our income is all we do, we would fall well more than 90 percent shy of the mark. Jesus says that everything we have and everything we are is God’s already.
All that we are comes from God. We are all made in God’s image and at whatever our stage of life, growing into God’s likeness. From us God asks our first and best. The firstfruits of our time, talent, and treasure. The best of our calendars as well as our wallets. Along with our various ministries throughout the six days, each Sunday in the Eucharist we present our gifts of money as a reminder that our offerings signify our commitment to the ministries of the Gospel, the activities the Risen Lord was about and is about, using us as hands and feet. However large or small these monetary gifts may be, God takes them, blesses them, breaks them, and gives them back into the world transformed. That’s what happens to us to when we commit ourselves to the one who has done these marvelous things.
When we offer God the first fruits, the very money and time and energy we want to hold onto, God transforms those first fruits into what we and the world need most. Our financial gifts count. Our best gifts of prayer and service count. They all enable and empower the ministry of this place. Every pledge, every dollar, every hour given in God’s name touches a life and brings it closer to God.
This “render unto Caesar” story is not about relieving us of hard moral decisions through faith, but about giving priority to faith in the One from whom all blessings flow, and in whom we live, move, and have our being. It’s about giving back to God what is God’s already. It’s about giving back to God our hearts, ourselves. We are all called today to remember who we are and whose we are and to live our lives accordingly.