Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’

Matthew 22:21a

The question that the Pharisees ask Jesus is a question that has been asked time and time again anytime people of faith find themselves living within as system that does not reflect their values. Their question “is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor” was really not about the emperor or Rome, but about how Jesus interpreted Jewish law.

You see, the Ten Commandments instructed the Jewish people that they should abstain from idolatry. “You shall not make for yourself an idol,” says the LORD God.[1]  The Biblical instruction against idolatry wasn’t merely a warning against bowing down and worshiping other Gods. It was also, and perhaps more fundamentally, about adopting values that were contrary to God. Although surrounded by people who worshipped other gods and who therefore had different values, the Jewish people were to refrain from worshiping those gods and adopting their values. “I am the LORD your God,” God says. “You shall have no other gods before me.”

For Rome, Caesar was a god. When Rome would conquer a new territory, they allowed them to retain the worship of their cultural gods, so long as prayers were offered to the Emperor. One of the problems that some traditional Jews had with Judaism under Roman occupation is that they believe that the Temple – the very address of God on earth – had been desecrated by sacrifices to the Roman Emperor.

The Pharisees (the sect of Judaism who regularly engages Jesus through the Gospels) were among those who shunned the temple system and refused to participate in what they believed was polluted worship. And being that Caesar’s (the God-Emperor’s) head was on the coins, engaging in commerce using Roman currency might have been seen by some as practicing idolatry. By asking Jesus “is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor,” they were hoping to trip Jesus up by catching him saying something that would either be blasphemous to their faith (“Yes! Pay the tax!) or treasonous to the empire (“No! Resist taxation!”).

Jesus, ever the cleaver one, catches them in their trap and not only answers their question, but proves an amazing depth of knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures. He flips it into a lesson on identity. “Give to Caesar what has Caesar’s image,” he says, “and give to God what bears God’s image.”

In the first creation myth found in the Book of Genesis, the writer says that after God had created light out of the darkness; suspended the dome of the sky from the scaffold of eternity and hung the sun, moon, and stars; dug out the oceans and hand-molded the continents; ordered a wide variety of blooming flowers; and hand-crafted the birds of the air, fish of the sea, and animals of the land; God sat down to make the crown of creation – human beings.

“’Let us make humankind in our image,’ God said, ‘according to our likeness…’
…So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them,
male and female he created them.”[2]

Beloved in Christ, you and I are created in the image of God. You and I bear the imprint of the very creator of the universe. When Jesus says, “give to God the things that are God’s,” it might be that he is saying “give God the things that bear God’s image. Give God your whole and entire self.”

Idolatry occurs when we give what belongs to God to anything that is not God: when our words suggest that we love God, but our priorities suggest otherwise; when we find ourselves too busy to pray or even to take time to rest and enjoy creation as God desires; when we fail to recognize who we are and whose we are. When that happens, we assume the values of the world around us: anxiety, fear, division, hatred and skepticism, greed and pride. Peace, love, mercy, compassion, justice, and grace only come when we align our priorities with the vision of God.

Listen, I know it is hard to consider giving our whole selves to God when there are so many other demands on our time and resources. We have children to raise, families to support, jobs to do, classes to pass, and projects to complete. God knows this. That might be why Jesus says to the Pharisees “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” In order to live in the world, there are some things that need to be done. But being in the world does not mean that we are of the world. We are called to be different in a way that bears witness to the reality of another kingdom, of another King, of another, higher way of being.

Do our priorities reflect what we say matters the most in your life? More importantly, do they match what God says is important? Do our schedules? Our bank accounts? Our relationships?

Do they match the image of a God so filled with love that that love overflowed and became the universe?

Do they match a God so compassionate that God stepped through the curtain of eternity onto the stage of time in order to rewrite our tragedy into a victory?

Do they match a God so filled with generosity, that God gave God’s only Son into the hands of the world so that the whole world might be brought back to God?

Do they match what we say each week: “All things come from you, O Lord. And of your own have we given you?”

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not” is the wrong question. It was intended to trap and confine. But Jesus, rather than try to trap them in return, responds with a Gospel that frees them from earthly anxiety if they cared to listen.

“You are created in God’s image,” he says. “Beloved, you are mine.”

[1] Exodus 20:4a

[2] Genesis 1:26-27