Our reading from Matthew this week ought to have comforted us in the same way. Matthew's story is about the denarius and whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. The Pharisees and Herodians think they have trapped Jesus. If Jesus says that it is lawful, the common people will hate Him. If Jesus says not to pay the taxes, the very temple elites whom Jesus has been condemning for the past chapter or two will be able to turn Him over to the Romans for inciting treason. Understandably, these two groups that hate each other think they have outsmarted the bumpkin from Nazareth. Yet look at the details.
The God of the universe, the Lord of all has to bum a denarius from the crowd. Can you imagine? In this day and age where the market meltdown, the housing bubble and the looming economic recession are at the forefront of every newspaper, magazine, and television newscast, the God Incarnate Man Divine has to ask for a denarius? It seems absurd. Yet Jesus always calls upon all of us to be careful of the emphasis which we placed upon money. Over and over again He reminds us that God loves us and will care for us as a good Father. We may not get what we want, but Jesus promises that our Father in Heaven will give us what we need! What better example to us is there than to live His life faithfully trusting that God would provide for all His needs, even when He needs a coin to teach us?
Then Jesus asks about the coin. "Who's image is this?" You and I are used to coins with the inscription "in God we trust." Roman citizens were used to a picture of Caesar and their own inscription. The coin that Jesus held up for all to see like had Tiberius' image and said something like "Caesar Tiberius, Augustus, Son of the deified Augustus, Chief Priest." Those in Jesus' audience answer Him that it is Caesar's Jesus then tells them to "give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar's." The word apodate is often translated as give, or render, or pay. But the word is very specific. It means to give back, implying that something has been given in the first place. And such a translation makes sense in light of Jesus' teaching. Those in the crowd have enjoyed the fruits of Caesar's reign. Caesar's army protects the people, Caesar's aqueducts have provided water, and Caesar's roads have made transportation and trade much easier. In short, in some ways, all have benefitted from Caesar's reign. Caesar has done these things, Caesar has paid for these things, Caesar's coin has even made it possible for those in Jesus' audience to purchase goods or transportation or services. So Jesus' answer seems profound. But is is even better than we realize.
Jesus goes on to state that we should all "give back to God the things that are God's." That same little word, apodate, supplies the verb for the second half of Jesus' teaching. Give back. Jesus has had the crowd looking at an image and inscription of Caesar. He has told them to give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar. Now He instructs them to give back to God the things that are God's. What in their life bears an image of God? In a short quick answer, Jesus reminds each in the audience that they were created in the image and likeness of God! What should they be giving back to God, then? Their very lives! Just as Caesar has stamped metal with his image and has expected it to be returned to him in tribute, God has stamped each of us with His image and expects us to give ourselves back to Him. Perhaps now we know why the Herodians and Pharisees went away amazed.
Similarly, you and I should be amazed. God has stamped each of us in His image. And, He has told each of us, as he told Moses in this week's OT reading or Evan in the movie, that He loves each one of us. No matter how bad things seem, no matter how poorly we act, no matter how often we fail Him, He loves us still; and He will not fail us! Even when we look stupid like Evan doing his "dance," God is right there loving us. How do we know? He sent His Son to teach us and to reconcile us to Him. He loved each one of us enough to die for us, to pay the penalty for all our sins, and to call us back into right relationship with Him, even though we have rejected Him over and over. And He did all this not because He was required to, but because He wanted to, because He loved each one of us.
What does He ask in return for such a gift, for such a love? Everything and nothing. God has given us our lives and expects us to give our lives back to Him. From our perspective, He has asked for everything. Yet, what of anything that we have is truly ours? Nothing. Everything belongs to the Creator. Over and over He reminds us that we are His stewards. He gives us treasure, time, talents, and lives which are to be used to serve Him. All these resources that He gives us are supposed to be used to draw the world to Him, to His saving Gospel, to His stretched out arms of love. And so often, we forget that simple truth claim. So often, we forget that we are stewards and act as if we were the lord. The Pharisees and Herodians went away amazed because they were confronted with a reminder of their place in His creation, and they were unwilling to submit to Him. You and I ought to be amazed but drawn to Him. Unlike the Pharisees and Herodians of our story this weekend, you and I can look back on the miracle of the empty tomb and the confirmation of the Ascension and have faith that Jesus is who He said He was. And, better still, He has asked each one of us to bear His image in a dark, lonely, and often hopeless world, reminding all those whom we meet that they, too, were created in His image.
Every day, you and I are involved in any number of transactions. Some involve the purchase of goods or services, others involve the exchange of ideas, and still others involve the exchange of love. The other person in the exchange can be the worker at Wal-Mart, a co-worker, a school friend, a family member, a bill collector, even a stranger; the possibilities are limitless! The image that we have of ourselves often dictates how we go about those interchanges and exchanges. Do you go about the world believing that you make your own image, your own self worth, your own value? Or do you remember that it is in His image that both you and the other were created and so try lovingly to draw him or her into the arms of their true Father, the One who refines all our images and makes us worthy to be loved by Him?