Sunday's reading can be found: [HERE]
A great irony with money is that it can be valued as somewhat of a need, despite it being objectively of no more value than the material it’s made up of. A defaced coin is worth no more than its metal. A mutilated hundred-dollar bill may be nothing more than a scrap piece of paper.
It’s the idea behind currency that’s valued. Money is a placeholder for influence in the world. It relies on a consensus between people who live in agreement as to how certain goods and services might be quantified in relation to others.
It seems difficult to imagine living without any such framework, at least, for the Pharisees and Herodians from our gospel today. They bought things using the image of Caesar. They sold things in his image. They valued work and even people in relation to Caesar.
As fish need water to live, the Pharisees and Herodians swam in Caesar’s pond. They had become so acclimated to Caesar’s world, that even their desire to bring about our Lord’s death was fueled by an instinct to appeal to Caesar’s image.
They ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” If Jesus said that it was lawful, then his enemies could accuse him of collaborating with Rome—the tyrannical occupier of Judaea and other lands. But if Jesus responded that it wasn’t lawful according to Jewish Law, then they could accuse Jesus of rebelling against Roman authority.
As we heard, our Lord refuses to answer their question on their terms, because he rejects their underlying premise. Jesus lives beyond the restrictive framework of Caesar. He operates at a higher level. That infinite and eternal “wine” our Lord would pour into creation couldn’t be contained by that finite “wineskin” of Caesar, whose days were numbered.
And so, Jesus says to them, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” In that one phrase, Jesus tells them that there is a place for participating in a society, but there is nevertheless another framework of living that is of a higher order that must not be forgotten.
Those who call God their Father live indifferent to the Roman coin. “Look at the birds of the air,” he’ll say to them, “they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (cf. Mt. 6:26).
“… Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed as one of these… If God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?... (cf. Mt. 6:28b - 30).
Like the Pharisees and Herodians, we can at times find it difficult to imagine a world beyond the framework of any worldly currency. We do this whenever we base our regard for others according to what they might do for a living, or by what possessions or wealth they have.
Our Lord spoke directly against that mindset. “When you give a feast,” he said, “invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Lk. 14:13).
And in another place, he said, “No one can serve two masters,” (cf. Mt. 6:24a). “You cannot serve both God and mammon” (cf. Mt. 6:24b).
Even the faithful can find it difficult to truly live beyond the leaven of currency. When I tithe or give alms, I can be tempted, at least implicitly, to feel that my contributions have earned me something—a certain degree of influence or privilege. But if that’s the case, then I haven’t actually given anything. Rather, I’ve bought something. I’ve bought influence—a say as to how things ought to be done.
But in the end, no currency lasts forever. The Roman coin, once held in high regard, is no longer in circulation. It's as dead as the Roman Empire. Even the American dollar will one day lose its value as the wheel of history grinds its value down. We already experience that to some degree with yearly inflation.
Caesar’s image was stamped on a small piece of metal. But more than a Roman coin that bears the image of Caesar, all of us bear the image of God. God created us in his image and after his likeness. You and I are the image of God in the world.
That image was tarnished by Original Sin. But it’s restored through the sacraments. In baptism, the raw metal of our very being was transformed into gold, to use a metaphor. In Confirmation, we’re sealed in the image of God once again, like hot wax is imprinted with a seal. That’s the image that’s invoked in the sacrament when the bishop signs the Cross on our foreheads, while saying, “be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit." When we receive the Eucharist, we enter into the economy of God, in which we discover the true value of everything and everyone. The true value of everything and everyone can be gleaned when measured against the Eucharist. The Eucharist is a mirror to our existence which reminds us that we are stamped in his image. It even is shaped somewhat like a coin.
You and I are challenged to reclaim our true value as God’s currency in the world. Money isn’t meant to just sit with any one person. Its value is manifested with the promise of exchange. Currency only makes sense if it’s in circulation. You and I are all living coins that must be spent freely in service to others, to manifest God’s influence in the world.
As our Lord challenged us in our gospel today, let us “give to God what belongs to God.” Let us live out our true value to the world, bearing the face of Christ wherever we go.
The Tribute Money, by Peter Paul Rubens, oil on panel, c. 1612, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco [Public Domain]