This morning’s gospel passage is a familiar one and, at tax time and during election season, an oft-cited one. “Render unto Caesar. . . ” Say just these three words at a party and you’ll likely find yourself in the middle of a debate about the separation of church and state, tax resistance, politics in the pulpit or, perhaps deadlier still, the use and abuse of God in political campaigns. Three words: “Render unto Caesar.” And a debate is just what the Pharisees were looking for – again – as they continue their attempts at setting Jesus up for arrest by the Roman authorities. If they can get Jesus to say that he is the “son of God” the “savior” the “king of kings” or the “lord of lords” – if they can get Jesus to say one should not pay taxes to the Roman government – they will have won because they will have demonstrated the very real threat that Jesus is to the Roman Emperor – not to mention Jesus’ threat to the Pharisees’ own power in the community.
But, Jesus knows what is at stake and continues to avoid their traps, giving them instead another lesson in theology. Jesus points to the imprinted image on the Roman coin – the image of Caesar – and says, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”[i] Perhaps Jesus’ words reminded the Pharisees of these words from King David’s final prayer, “For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you.”[ii] Or did Jesus perhaps remind them of the very law that they felt compelled to uphold – the law of God, the Torah, with its requirement of loyalty to God alone: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.”[iii] Whatever Jesus’ response evoked, three things are made clear: (1) all that is belongs to God, (2) if we give God all that belongs to God – that is everything - there will be nothing left for Caesar – or anyone else, for that matter and (3) the Pharisees, “when they heard [Jesus’ answer,] . . . were amazed; and they left him and went away.”[iv]
When I was a child, I remember that my parents carried in their wallets school photos of my brother, my sister, and me as well as a family photo. Not too many years ago, I used to carry photos of my nieces in my wallet. Today, of course, with changes in technology most of us now store these images on our cell phone, iPhone or Blackberry and have instant access to an entire album of photos. But regardless of the technology, these images which we carry with us represent loved ones, people with whom we are in relationship, people who are inscribed upon our hearts.
When Paul writes to the Thessalonians, he begins his letter by saying “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”[v] We know from the Acts of the Apostles that Paul and Silas preached in Thessalonica on three Sabbath days. Some of the Jews “were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the Jews, [that is, those not persuaded by Paul’s message], became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the marketplaces they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar . . . . That very night the believers sent Paul and Silas” away. It is no wonder that Paul is thankful for the believers in Thessalonica. Not only did they receive Paul’s message of the Good News but now they are living their lives out of their faith – they have become “an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.”[vi] If he could, Paul might carry their photos in his wallet. But, instead, he proclaims his thanks to God, he mentions the people in his prayers, and he remembers before God their work of faith, their labor of love, and their steadfastness of hope. The people of Thessalonica are inscribed upon Paul’s heart.
Let’s return now for a moment to this morning’s gospel reading and Jesus’ response to the Pharisees: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”[vii] The Rev. Mary Anderson, Pastor of Incarnation Lutheran Church in Columbia, South Carolina, links Jesus’ answer about taxes back to a passage in Isaiah where God’s deep connection and love for God’s people is described: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.”[viii] Anderson writes, “All creation bears God’s image because God is the Creator of all things including the human man Caesar.”[ix] As Caesar’s image is imprinted on the Roman coin, so our image is imprinted – inscribed – on the palms of God’s hands. God has pictures of each of us and all of creation on his new iPhone 4S. Quite an image indeed! Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees goes far beyond their question about taxes to a response that reminds the Pharisees and us about right priorities, about right attitudes, and, perhaps, most importantly, of right relationship with God. As we hold dear to us those who are inscribed upon our hearts, as Paul holds dear to him the people of Thessalonica who are inscribed upon his heart, how much more so does our God hold us dear – we who are inscribed on the palms of God’s hands, we who are created in God’s very likeness.
Several years ago, during Lent, I took on a practice of writing a daily gratitude list. I was inspired to do this by a passage in Marjorie Thompson’s book Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life: “Our first act of hospitality to God,” she writes, “is to receive what God gives. How distressing for God to offer grace so freely, only to have us refuse or ignore it!” She then goes on to list the many ways in which we close “the door on divine love” by allowing “ourselves to become distracted and preoccupied…[by] decide[ing] that we are unworthy…[by] convince[ing] ourselves that we must first prove worthy of receiving something….It takes genuine humility,” she concludes, “to receive God’s gifts.”[x]
God delivers Jesus into the world as the ultimate gift - a gift of grace given for the world. God invites us to receive that gift, to not become distracted or preoccupied by fears that we aren’t worthy, to not become bogged down or side-tracked by misguided debates, to simply open our arms and receive. The right attitude or response to God’s free gift is modeled for us in Eucharistic Prayer B:
“We give thanks to you, O God, for the goodness and love which you have made known to us in creation; in the calling of Israel to be your people; in your Word spoken through the prophets; and above all in the Word made flesh, Jesus, your Son. For in these last days you sent him to be incarnate from the Virgin Mary, to be the Savior and Redeemer of the world. In him, you have delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before you. In him, you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.”[xi]
“You have made us worthy to stand before you.” We do not need to become distracted by questions about worthiness – our own or anyone else’s - for worthiness before God is a part of the gift from God – that marvelous gift of grace available to all of humanity and indeed all of God’s creation. All things come from God – even our worthiness. And so our response to this extravagantly generous God can only be one of thanksgiving. “We give thanks to you, O God.”
[i] Matthew 22:21.
[ii] 1 Chronicles 29:10b-14.
[iii] Deuteronomy 6:4.
[iv] Matthew 22:22.
[v] 1 Thessalonians 1:2.
[vi] 1 Thessalonians 1:5, 7.
[vii] Matthew 22:21.
[viii] Isaiah 49:15-16.
[x] Marjorie J. Thompson, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 125.