We hear in today’s Gospel one of Jesus’ wisdom sayings: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus makes this remark, of course, in reply to those who came to trick Jesus into making statements against the government; an entrapment to get him imprisoned and killed. The disciples of the Pharisees were cunning in this attempt. They butter up Jesus, calling Jesus “Teacher.” They say they know he is sincere, that he teaches the way of God in accordance with truth. They acknowledge that Jesus shows deference to no one, is partial to no one.
Then they spring this well-baited trap. “Tell us, then, what you think.” Behind this benign invitation, you can almost hear the jaws of the trap groaning to be flung free on its victim. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” …just asking… A less astute teacher might find the opportunity to malign an oppressive Roman rule as he or she enlightens others on a different order of living. A less astute teacher could seize the opportunity to speak not of Caesar’s earth-bound kingdom, but to expound from their passion on the Kingdom of God. “The government…” a less inspired and more fed-up teacher might begin, as an unfortunate corner is quickly turned to unleash their pent-up anger. “The government…what a pile of sewer trash that is when compared to the Kingdom of God! Of course, you shouldn’t pay taxes to this corrupt and oppressive mess!” Trap sprung!, Game, set, match! Gotcha!
But, as we know, rather than fall into this trap, Jesus wisely and simply asks to see a coin. And when one is quickly produced, Jesus then asks, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” This wisdom saying, condensed to, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” works like a koan—you know, one of those almost impossible Zen Buddhist puzzles created by the master to lead the student to enlightenment. The student works on the koan, the puzzle, tirelessly, thinking it through over and over again until the koan seems to take on a life of its own, The koan then begins to work tirelessly on the student—until enlightenment is provoked. At first glance, Jesus’ statement seems to only be an equally tricky response to a tricky question, a tricky way for Jesus to remain free of the Pharisees’ trap. “Give to Caesar and give to God.” –not either/or, but instead, both/and! Trap avoided! No one is offended, no kingdom maligned. Death sentence avoided… for now.
But then, maybe on second glance, it is simply a logical statement: “Give to the government which supports and protects your life—provides water, roadways, military,” etc. It is a moral duty as well as civil one to contribute to the common good with the payment of taxes. There is no reason that justifies tax evasion or theft of state assets—then or now. A disciple of Christ is called to be an honest and exemplary citizen.
And, on third glance… we must consider that Jesus’ answer, is not limited only to a statement of the duty to contribute to the common good. He adds: “Give to God what is God’s.” It is worth noting that the verb Jesus uses here more precisely means “to return.” “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and return to God what is God’s.” This consideration causes us to ask: and what is God’s?
It’s easy enough to reckon that—as Jesus’ followers--we are God’s, but then, aren’t the Pharisees and their followers God’s too, since God created them? Isn’t Caesar, himself, God’s? And, Caesar’s coin… doesn’t everything belong to God because God brought all things into being? All belong to God, whether everyone realizes this or not. Jesus’ wisdom saying is deeper and broader than initially conceived. Caesar’s kingdom—and all of our governments today—require something of us, but God’s Kingdom is everything to us! God’s Kingdom requires all that we are and do and think, because, after all, we are of God. If the coin had to be “returned” to Caesar because it was stamped with Caesar’s face, the person must be “returned” to God because the face of God is imprinted on us all!
So, how do I give myself to God? How do I give all that I am and all that I do, to God? Knowing that we already are God’s, then using Jesus’ word “return”, how do I return myself to God? One way is to reconnect, to remember that we are made in God’s own image. We can remember that some—not all, of course—but some of the attributes that define us, we share in common with God. This is how God created us—to reflect God. We reflect the image of God when, like God, we have relationships and friendships; We reflect the image of God when we love and show all those attributes of love explained in the 1Corrinthinans passage—when we are patient, kind, encourage others, when we are humble, put others first, when we hope and persevere, when we rejoice in the truth. We reflect the image of God when we show compassion; when we forgive; when we’re creative; when we’re rational. It’s a good spiritual practice to take time to identify these kinds of qualities that God exhibits through our reading of the Holy Scripture and through our own experience of God, and then humbly identify where we align with those same qualities.
Another way to return myself to God is to remember our role as stewards of all of the gifts God has entrusted to our care, as we steward the earth, its plants and animals, its climate; as we steward our homes, our relationships; our own talents, abilities, and attitudes; our financial gifts; our senses of humor and appreciation; situations in which we find ourselves; etc. We can return all these gifts to God through our honor and care; through our nurture, and by being intentional about doing this.
I can return to God in my prayer life, thanking God for my bounty; asking God’s favor on those in need—working on their behalf and offering some of what I have to them. in my prayers, I can ask forgiveness and reconciliation when I see myself better than others whose values, thoughts, attitudes, ethnicity, politics, religions, differ from my own. I can ask God’s help in opening my eyes to see all others as God’s creation, and ask for help in separating their being from their behavior.
I can return to God by vowing to display the peace of God, inwardly to myself as well as outwardly to others, through kindness, compassion and forgiveness—and then to move beyond “vowing”, to actually taking these actions of kindness and forgiveness--even at times when I’m feeling “ruffled!”
If you have been caught up lately in how irrational things seem, how the world seems to be swirling only into darkness, it’s good to remember that we are of God, that we can reflect God in this bizarre world and in these strange times. We must bring God’s light to the world. Recently, I’ve been reading about the faith of Fred Rogers, “Mr. Rogers”—a Presbyterian minister whose pulpit was a children’s show. Reflecting on Mr. Roger’s faith, I have recalled God’s values of simple kindness, calm, patience and slowness. Even after his death, he still brings God’s light to the world. What a good example of returning to God what is God’s. What a good example Fred is to me.
These things I’ve named are a good place to start! And, I’ll bet that you have or can come up with your own unique way of returning to God what is God’s. If any one of the things just named resonates with you or has stuck in your mind, maybe that’s the place for you to start this week. And, if the task seems daunting, remember that you don’t have to take it all on at once—or to be perfect! Try increasing that action or attribute by only a little, and then continue working on it—maybe like a koan asking: In what way can I be somewhat kinder with all others I meet? A koan that you work and work and work on, until the thought begins to work and work and work on you… With God’s help, we can live this creatively and courageously!
When we turn to fear, live in fear, is when everything gets torn down, and this is when we worry. This is when our worry actually becomes our prayer. In essence, we are praying for what we don’t want to come about. In fear, we shrink and tremble; we name ourselves as helpless victims: The world’s gone mad; everything is terrible; it’s not safe; I can trust no one. With God’s help, we can clearly see that the world is more or less as troubled now as it ever has been. Maybe it’s only become more personal now. With God’s help, we can maintain our connection to being brought into this world in God’s image with specific work to do for God’s honor. With God’s help we need fear no one. We stand under the banner of Jesus and see others—all others—as God’s own children, also, doing the best they can, given the gifts and the limitations they know.
And, as you go about your days this week, I hope you take this sentence from the Offertory of the Rite I Eucharist with you, and ponder it in your heart, “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” … “All things come from You, my God, and from all the gifts You have blessed me with, I return this to You.”
~Fr. Tony Moon, St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
 Fernando Armellini. Celebrating the Word of God: Engaged in the world, but not of the world. https://sundaycommentaries.wordpress.com/2020/09/28/twenty-ninth-sunday-in-ordinary-time-18-october-2020/Commentary on the Readings.