Render unto God
A unique problem of 21st century ministry among young adults is that as a priest, as the person who runs The House, I had to figure out what to write in our instagram bio. In 150 characters, how do you explain with the most nuance and breadth, what your church values, what it believes, and who it's for. It's not the only thing folks will ever see, it's not the last word about who we are, but it is a kind of high stakes that would be hard to explain -- a lot of our folks come to us through social media, and the bio is among the first impressions they'll have of us. So I wrestled and wrestled and ended up writing this: We believe that everyone is made in the image of God.🏳️🌈🏳️⚧️ And it's a Gospel reading like this that reminds me that it was a good call.
Jesus is faced with these little folks trying to trip him up in his words and they ask him, well what about paying taxes to the emperor, Jesus. And Jesus says, well, whose face does the coin bear? The emperor's? Well give it to the emperor. This is the emperors, well give it to the emperor. And so, too, give to God the things that are God's.
This raises the question -- if the coin bearing the emperor belongs to the emperor, what bears the image of God? And the answer is, simply, everything else. Everything else. In Genesis 1, on the sixth day of creation, God says: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And forever we are stuck with the caveat that each of us is made in the image of God and bears God's likeness. So were we to render unto Caesar was bears Caesar and render unto God what bears God, Caesar would get his denarii and George Washington would get his $1 bills and God would get everything else, including you and me and Caesar and George. Jesus is saying, you know what, taxes are fine but you're still playing small potatoes. Arguing over taxes is small, finite, human logic, when all of this and all of us belongs to God.
The core of the Gospel is that we all belong to God and then that we all also belong to each other, and it is a truth that supersedes everything. That we belong to God is truer than that his taxes belong to Caesar, that we belong to God and to one another is truer than our economic systems, than social prejudices than racial or ethnic prejudices. We all belong to God and to each other, and it is a truth that will always foil the machinations of militaries and war financers and colonizers.
I would be telling white lies to stand up here and insinuate that I know enough about what is happening -- and has been happening for decades -- between Israel and Palestine to be able to make authoritative geopolitical claims. But what I do know more than anything is the Gospel of Jesus and from this passage from Matthew, we can say that there is not an inhabitant of Gaza or Israel that does not bear the image of God; they belong to God and they belong to one another, just as the belong to us and us, them. Were we to render unto God what is God's, then the warmachine would lose its claim over the Holy Land and we would have to stop treating annihilation as a form of reconciliation. Were we to really believe that we all belonged to God, our allies and enemies alike, it would foil individual prejudices, it would foil collective acts of violence, and it would foil systemic oppressions and occupations.
Again, I, don't know what do about the Holy Land but I do know that what Jesus is offering in this Gospel passage to the Pharisees is an earth-shattering proposal, that to render to Caesar Caesar's and to God God's would leave Caesar with a small treasury and God with everything else, you and me and all of us. To truly believe that everyone is made in the image of God and then to actually act like, is aspirational for probably most any of us. But it gets to be our work as Christians to grow our imaginations and to tend our hearts to the point where they can hold the big bracing truth of the Gospel, that there is not a single one of us that does not bear the image of our maker and there is not a single one of us, individual or people or nation, that can be rendered to Caesar and not to God.