Updated: Aug 2, 2021
In the name of the holy and undivided Trinity, one God. Amen.
“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s…” (KJV)
We all know this passage. I think it’s fair to say that we’ve all been bewildered by these words at one point or another. Some might interpret them to be about the ethics of paying taxes or about empire and economics, or about our doubts in Jesus’ desires for us as Christians. Today, I see it as a statement about the often-tense relationship between humankind and the God who created us—between the secular and worldly and the holy and Godly.
In this gospel scene, we encounter a somewhat cryptic Jesus—as usual. The Pharisees and Herodians go to Jesus and ask, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor? Or not?” Their question is a trap. If Jesus says ‘yes,’ the Pharisees will denounce him. If he says ‘no,’ the Herodians will have him arrested for sedition. Jesus is no dummy…
Instead of falling into either of their traps, he asks them to show him a denarius—the coin that would be used to pay the tax in question. Examining the coin, Jesus asks, “Whose head is this? And whose title?” I imagine him holding the coin up, noticing the stamped head of Tiberius, the emperor, almost as if for the first time. “Whose head is this?” In other translations of this story, Jesus asks, “Whose image is this?”
Coins minted by Rome each had the emperor’s face stamped on them. This isn’t too different from the coins in our pockets today, with presidents’ faces on one side and some symbol of America or its history on the other. The United States Mint also stamps them with a familiar phrase: In God, we trust.
Jesus’ question “Whose head is this?” captures my attention. We’ve grown comfortable with Jesus and his habit of responding to a question with a question—it happens so frequently. Jesus is too clever to entrap himself by answering their question about taxes directly, and instead he replies his own question, followed by his ambiguous response, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.’
Jesus invites us to find something deeper than taxes within this statement… He wants us to contemplate where we put our trust… and where our faith has its foundation: in the institutions of empire or nation, or in God?
I sense that Jesus hopes that his statement would inspire the nations to a benevolent economic system where the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned could be cared for… and not left behind in favor of Caesar and whatever his agenda of the day might be.
Jesus’ response to give back to Caesar his share wasn’t just a call to abandon those earthly concerns, but it was a reminder of the division between worldly and Godly. But we get stuck in a murky middle-ground between the two. On our shoulders, we balance a milkmaid’s yoke, trying to find a sweet spot between earthly concerns and a deep spiritual life with God at its center.
I hear Jesus challenging us to discover what sort of world God wants—and needs—us to live in, and how we might make the empires around us support that. “Give to God the things that are God’s.”
Jesus asks us which of these images better reflect God: The stamp of Caesar, who favored himself to be chosen by God to lead Rome… Or do we, as beloved children of God, reflect a more authentic likeness of God into the world around us. “We see God in each other, not in Rome,” he might have said to his disciples later that evening as they ate together, finally giving some clarity to his cryptic response that afternoon.
This distinction between the two arenas is critical. We must consider which is more important, the institutions of the world… or responding to God’s unique call for each of us. We can be more like Caesar and the Pharisees… or more like Jesus. We can ally ourselves with the earthly world, concerned with politics, economics, and rhetoric, or we can look toward God and form a deep relationship with the divine, one which will lead us through our lives. The choice is up to us.
Let’s consider the phrase “In God, we trust”… Throughout our history, Americans have latched onto this phrase, again and again, in times of uncertainty or turmoil. We believe that God will get us through whatever troubles we might face. We see that God’s call for us in times of crisis is to remain steadfast and persevere, even through the darkest storm.
“In God, we trust.” Not in Caesar. Not in America. Not in economics and finance. Not in the Department of Defense. Not in the president, or Congress, or our governors and mayors… We trust in God. God who shares God’s loving-kindness with us, because we put our trust in God! God will always provide for us because we are made in God’s image. Jesus reassures us that God will respond to our needs… even better than Caesar will.
With this in mind, I see Jesus’ message to us in this story as a reminder of who is really going to look out for us in times of catastrophe… The leaders of empires often prioritize their own needs over the poorest among us. The apathy of power-hungry Caesars and the carelessness of empire affect the lives of everyday people, particularly those living closest to the margins. There’s a fluid movement that happens between the world God wants us to live in and the world we encounter today. We always dance between the two worlds, between two sets of values. We look for truth in both places. We endeavor to trust both the human and the divine. We seek justice from the empire, but also from God.
Truth, trust, and justice are not just human moral imperatives. They remind us of the image of God that God has marked on us… We look for God’s truth in the earthly, and trust that we can find it. Our desire to act justly is a desire to build a bridge between worldly and Godly… But often, that bridge between worldly and Godly feels like a rickety suspension bridge, made of fraying rope and gnarly wood, hanging over who-knows-what beneath. Again, we have to consider that murky middle-ground where we get stuck. We must pay our taxes to Caesar, but God also calls us to care for the image of God in ourselves and in the world around us.
Jesus teaches us in plain language what our principal objective is as Christians: To love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. And, to love your neighbor as yourself. There is no mysterious or cryptic language in this, the greatest commandment. We are called to build up God’s love on earth as best we can. We are called to reflect God’s values in all that we do. We are called to take responsibility for the errors of empire and to challenge others to pursue justice for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned. And we are called to love God’s image in each other, even when we can’t see it.
Like Moses, we may not be able to see God’s face, but we can recognize traces of God’s likeness when we look at those around us. We see God in the smile of a stranger. We hear God in the cries of the oppressed and marginalized. We feel God in the warm embrace of an old friend. The image of God is all around us—in every-thing that God has created. Let us not continue to corrupt that creation. We must hold our modern Caesars to an ethical and Godly standard—one that genuinely reflects Christ’s presence among us, one that respects God’s image within us, and one that seeks to bind us together and not drive us apart. We pray that God empowers us to build bridges and not walls. We give thanks that God continues to nourish us to do this difficult work. To seek justice and truth, and to trust in God.
For the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favour in my sight, and I know you by name.’