…and to God what is God’s. These are Jesus’ words in answer to the challenge of the Pharisees trying to trap him, that we hear in the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time Mass readings in the Gospel of Matthew (22:15-21). Does this mean that what we do in our social structures, such as in government or work, are separate and unrelated to our faith? These words have been interpreted by some to say just that. But I suggest these words say exactly the opposite.
As people of faith, we often find ourselves in very difficult positions, and in conflict with the values of our culture, norms, and the laws of our man-made institutions. The test that the Pharisees are presenting to Jesus, puts him in such a bind. The Pharisees, as a trap, have asked him if it was “Lawful to pay the taxes to Caesar or not?” If Jesus answers yes, he will disappoint many of his Jewish supporters hoping that He is the Messiah who will free them from Roman oppression. If he says no, the Pharisees and Herodians (those loyal to king Herod and therefore close collaborators with Roman authorities) planned to report him to Rome, as a rebel encouraging a revolt against Roman authority. (Note, that this very scenario was not new. In about 4 B.C. Rome crushed a Jewish uprising lead by a “messiah” saying that it was not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar.)
When Jesus asks those testing him to show him a coin with Caesar’s image, He has already exposed their hypocrisy, and the trap. As religious Jews, carrying the coin with Caesar’s image, and the inscription proclaiming him as god, was blasphemy. Jesus did not stop there, but uses the situation as a teaching moment for them, and us. Jesus draws on a teaching already known by his audience from scripture and Rabbinic tradition. We are made in God’s image and likeness (Gn 1:26-27). Just as the coin bears the image of the one who made it (Caesar), so too do we bear the image of the one who made us (God)! Jesus is raising their minds to the higher standard under which we always live. No matter where we are, no matter in what situation we find ourselves, we always belong to God, and Him alone do we serve. After paying taxes to, or working for Caesar, we do not belong to Caesar. We always belong to God, and as such we can never act in ways that are against God’s kingdom, even if Caesar commands it. Jesus is teaching a similar message as He has already taught in Mt 6:24, where he says, “No one can have two masters: If he does he will love one and hate the other… You cannot serve both God and Mammon.” Or another similar teaching is found in Mt 10:28, “Do not fear the one who can kill your body, but has no power to kill your soul; rather fear Him who can destroy both body and soul in hell.” As people of faith, we find that we are in the world, but not of the world. We are in Caesar’s reign, but Caesar’s reign is under God’s reign. We live in Caesar’s reign, but we don’t belong to it. Each of us have an image of God implanted in us. We are called to allow that image to always show. No matter where we are, we are to remember whose we are. We are called to shape the systems we are a part of, not let the sinfulness of the structures in which we find ourselves make dull our image of God, like an old coin that becomes tarnished.
This struggle to live in the world, but not as part of the world, is one of the motives for living as a Religious Brother or Sister, and as a Franciscan. Who we hang out with, and live with, has an influence on us. If we marry, the person we choose to marry has a large impact on who we become. Hopefully we choose a person that will help us become a better person, and a holier person. Franciscans choose to live with others who share their faith and call to serve God, and hence help them become a holier person. When one becomes a Franciscan, they join an intentional community that is largely counter-cultural. We do not even pay taxes! (Our vow of poverty prevents us from having anything of our own, therefore individually we have no income and no wealth, and are not required to pay individual income tax. Please, don’t join for this reason! But I could not resist pointing out that this is indeed one way to literally solve the dilemma that the Pharisees present in today’s Gospel!) Franciscans live together, in the world, but counter to the world’s values of materialism, consumerism, and individualism. Thus, as members of a religious family, we encourage and challenge one another, as Jesus is challenging the Pharisees in the Gospel, to remember what is most important. The image of God is in each of us, and it is there to shine brightly. Alone it can shine, but it will more likely shine brightly if we find a group of people to live and work with who also seek to allow that image to shine brightly. Just as many candles will light a space better than one, so too does a community of friars seek to not only preserve the image of God in themselves, but together reshape a world according to that image. Learn more about the Franciscan Life at our next Come and See event November 24-26, in Castro Valley, CA. For more information click here.