19th Week after Pentecost
Our lives today seem to get busier and busier with more demands on our time and resources than ever. Yet those demands often take us in so many directions that we end up living fragmented lives, rather than well-integrated lives of wholeness. Our families, our work, our friends, even our church, all competing for our attention and loyalty.
A pie graph of our life might show what many of us feel in our bones: that there is only so much of us to go around. If we give more attention to one area, then we must give less to another. If we do more, we may have to sleep less. Increased attention to work may require decreased attention to family. We all have our limits. We have only so much time, so much energy.
The problem is an ancient one, and it is featured in our gospel reading today.
The land where Jesus lives is ruled by Caesar. It is an occupied land. The people feel the weight of foreign domination. They are taxed beyond endurance. In such a place, it is important to determine a person’s attitude toward Caesar. It can prove dangerous to give Caesar anything less than the slice of pie that he wants. Yet to accept his claim to the lion’s share can be dangerous to one’s relationship with God.
Thus, in their campaign to trap Jesus, his opponents ask him a loaded question. "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?" If he says yes, then he loses the support of the masses, who long for freedom. If he says no, then he reveals himself as a subversive and may forfeit his life.
"Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." With this reply, Jesus raises the debate to a higher level. What is at stake is more than tax payments, more than even the rule of Rome. The question is whether God claims a slice of the pie or something else?
Jesus insists that the claim God makes is unique. What belongs to God is not some slice of the pie, but the whole pie, the complete person. Nothing less will do. Our Creator has a claim on us. The pie belongs to the one who baked it.
Recognize the irony in today’s Gospel. After his opponents pose their question, Jesus asks to see one of the coins used for tax payments. They show him a Roman coin that bears the image of the emperor. Jesus asks who is represented on this silver coin. They tell him it is Caesar. And so Jesus resolves their dilemma. They should give Caesar this piece of metal, for it bears his image. On the same basis, they should give God what bears the divine image, namely themselves, for like everyone else, they are made in the image of God. Give your money to Caesar if you must, Jesus says, but give yourselves to God.
God does not want a slice of who we are, whether that slice is thick or thin. God wants our whole selves. God is not part of the competition that pulls us this way and that, but is the one who makes us whole. Our relationship with God is not a matter of the logic of fractions by which we give away portions of who we are. Our relationship with God depends on the logic of love, which demands that we surrender ourselves that we may truly live.
Outside this logic of love, God remains hidden from us, and we remain separated from the self we truly are. But as we give to God what belongs to God, as we honor the divine claim on the whole of our lives, then something remarkable begins to happen. We become adept at giving Caesar what truly belongs to Caesar, no more and no less and our unqualified love for God finds its reflection in our appropriate relations with others.
Problems do not disappear, but we see them for what they are, and we no longer fear them. The diverse pieces of our pie fit together more truly than they did before. What holds them together is not something we supply. It is the skill of the baker, the one to whom the pie belongs.
Give Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but give God what belongs to God.
What Jesus tells his interrogators in response to their one malicious question offers us a basis for resolving our many questions about divided loyalties.
We also are to give to God what belongs to him, what bears his image and his name. We are to give ourselves to God. Not once only, but continually. Giving ourselves to God is to be a characteristic of our lives, something that defines and shapes who we are.
We are charged with the creative and challenging task of transforming our diverse and divided loyalties into a unified life governed and directed by our supreme and absolute loyalty, which is to God and God’s dream for this world.
And the wonder of it is that in putting God as the orienting center of our lives, the other demands made of us can fall into their proper places, so that divided loyalties become united in a life that loves God with all that we are and our neighbors as ourselves.
When we continually give ourselves to God, then we are free to give to others in ways that are gracious and life-giving, rather than distorted and destructive. All of our loyalties then blend into a single one. No longer are these loyalties divided; instead we recognize how, deep down, they are really one, for each is an invitation from God.
We may feel drained simply by considering all this generosity, but when we get the tune right, by giving ourselves to God and to others, then a transformation occurs. We no longer see ourselves as givers. We are receivers, recipients of divine generosity, the conduit through which God’s love flows. This is the truth of our lives and this is the truth of the life of Jesus, which we are called to follow.