The past few weeks, Jesus has told us parables. Listeners see Jesus on the attack. In our Gospel today, the Pharisees have had enough. They plan a counterattack.
They direct a carefully formulated question at Jesus, and begin by flattering Him. They call Him a teacher. “We know you are a truthful Man and follow God’s way.” Then as the crowd looks on, they ask, “Is it lawful to pay tax to Caesar or not?”
The crowd must have fallen silent at that. Because this was a loaded question; a no-win situation for Jesus. If He had said they should pay tribute to Caesar, He would lose credibility with the Jews. If He had said it was wrong to pay Caesar, he would be committing a public act of treason and the Romans could arrest Him.
What was He going to say? How was He going to respond? He was in big trouble.
“Show me the coin,” was the Lord’s answer. He is telling the crowd that He doesn’t have the emperor’s coins – they do. Possession of the coin implied acknowledgment of the Roman sovereignty.
He asks, “Whose image is this? Caesar’s? Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Give to God the things that are God’s.”
This answer infuriated them. Jesus has made them look like fools, again. Their carefully laid plans had badly misfired. In one sense, His answer didn’t settle anything. He didn’t tell them what belonged to Caesar and what belonged to God. He never laid down rules or regulations. He laid down principles. This is why His teaching is timeless. He gives us the principle, then tells us to think.
In a way, that’s what He’s doing in today’s Gospel. He makes His appeal not to some lofty principle, but to common sense. The implication is that the coin has Caesar’s picture on it. So, give it to him. But the most important line is to give to God what is God’s.
God doesn’t need your taxes. He doesn’t need your vote. He doesn’t need you to take up arms in His defense. But God does deserve your conscience. Your conscience doesn’t belong to a human institution. Your greatest love, your greatest loyalty belongs to God.
The Roman coin was stamped with Caesar’s image. But the human heart is stamped with the image of God.
Perhaps the question is, do we give to God what is God’s? We all, at some time in life, have to make decisions. Do we serve God or Caesar? Good or evil?
Being human, we sometimes make bad choices. And we ask the question: What should I do? What must I do to be authentic? To live the life God has called me to live?
Ask yourselves, who comes first in my life? Is Christ in your top 10 list? If not, why not?