The inscription on a Roman coin reads: "Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest." When demanded to pay the “census” tax in homage to the Roman Emperor, faithful Jews were deeply offended. Each coin was stamped with the image of Caesar, a graven image that marked not only a burden for an occupied people, but also an act against God.
So when Jesus asks the Pharisees and Herodians to show him a Roman coin and gives them an answer to their challenging trick question about paying taxes to the emperor, his words are brilliant. Jesus pointed to the image on the coin and said look…whose image is on this? Give your money to the one in whose image it was made. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God, the things that are God's!" In other words, "give back,"--pay back like paying a debt--give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give back to God what is God’s.
But the true brilliance of this answer lies in its deeper implication. Because the same is true with God. In other words, if the coin is made in the image of Caesar, what is made in God’s image? Where is God’s image to be found? And just as all that reflects Caesar’s image belongs to Caesar, all that is stamped with God’s image is God’s. Everything we are and everything we have belongs to God. Money represents the things of this world, so give them up and focus instead on giving back to God in response to all that God has given you.
Show me the money. Our money is marked with symbols of our history and government—Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt. But where is the source of our lives? In whom do we truly put our faith? Like the Jews in occupied Palestine to whom Jesus spoke, our very lives are stamped with the image of God. So it’s there that we should give our hearts and minds and souls.
Where are our hearts, really? When we give our hearts to God it shows in the nature of our relationships –the love we show to our families, our co-workers and neighbors – loving even the stranger, even loving our enemies.
When we give our minds to God, we keep our minds open, we engage with God in prayer, and are always in conversation with God, through the lenses of love.
And when we give our souls to God, we faithfully and prayerfully consider what would God have us do. Letting go of our own egos and the societal pressures around us, we take the time to consider, “What’s most important, in God’s worldview?” And letting that be our guide.
Jesus so brilliantly invited us to see the question in a new way. It’s not about giving all to Caesar and none to God. And it’s not about giving all to God and none to Caesar. What’s important for us is the question ~ where are our priorities as we live out our lives, living in this world but not of this world? Here’s a story that describes an example of setting priorities of heart, mind and soul, and faithfully living out this balance...
“An ordinary woman once lived in a small town near Modesto, California. She wasn’t famous, powerful or influential. She was the kind of person we’d call a good neighbor. She was friendly, liked by her neighbors, and was good to her family. When the United States entered the Second World War, she supported our government. Then California Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren signed an order requiring all U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry to be interned in relocation camps.
“Many of this woman’s neighbors were Japanese Americans. She knew them and loved them as her friends. She went to Sacramento and lobbied the legislators. She wrote to the President to try to stop the camps and the government confiscation of Japanese property. She could not move the powerful and famous. She was a lone nobody. So this lone woman bought all the Japanese farms and homes in her town for a dollar each and watched her friends being taken away. When the camps were closed, when the Japanese who survived had no homes left, when their lands were stolen by our government, this woman’s neighbors were lucky. She gave her friends and neighbors back their homes and land so that they might live.”(1)
When you hold a coin in your hand, a dollar bill between your fingers, do you stop to think about your priorities? Do you feel, in your heart and your mind and your soul, where your true allegiance lies? We live in a culture of Caesars. We need to be realistic enough to give to Caesar what is Caesar's. But we do not owe Caesar our hearts, our minds, our souls.(2) Let’s give to God what is God's.
(1) Rita Nakashima Brock, “The courage to Choose/The Commitment to be Chosen,” in And Blessed is She: Sermons by Women.
(2) Patrick Brennan, “What is God’s,” http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/brennan_3711.htm