Two weeks ago, I was at the diocesan Cathedral for an Ordination Liturgy. A member of our parish was ordained to the permanent diaconate. The Cathedral staff has a very clever system for helping priests deal with the process of vesting for diocesan ceremonies.
The priests attending Liturgies at the Cathedral are given vestments to use at Mass. Volunteers collect the priests’ suit coats, and hang them on the hangers that previously held the vestments. The priest is given a numbered tag that corresponds to the numbered hanger holding his suit coat. At the end of the liturgy, the numbered tag identifies which black suit coat belongs to which priest. In a room filled with black suit coats, those little tags avoid a great deal of potential confusion.
Wouldn’t life be simple if there was a way of being certain about what belongs to whom? Jesus said that there is, at least with regard to the most important things in life.
In today’s Gospel reading, some Pharisees and Herodians asked Jesus if it was permissible for observant Jews to pay the census tax to Caesar. The subtext of the question was the widely held Jewish opinion that paying the tax was an affront to Mosaic Law.
Jesus asked them to show him one of the coins used to pay the tax. As the Roman Empire accepted only Roman coins in payment of the census tax, the coin produced by the provocateurs bore an idolatrous image of Caesar, who considered himself to be a god.
The question that was formulated to embarrass Jesus turned into an embarrassment for the challengers. They were carrying Roman currency with them: an admission of their divided loyalties. Their pretense of opposing the tax was shown to be a shallow ruse.
The Pharisees and Herodians, who tried to entrap Jesus in a political controversy, were themselves entrapped by Jesus’ quick retort. They went away angry because their carefully crafted plan had backfired. Unfortunately, they probably had no realization of what Jesus was saying to them.
The Pharisees and Herodians had tried to trap Jesus by making him swear complete allegiance to either Caesar or Moses. Jesus turned the tables on them, using their own logic. His statement, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21), exposed the duplicity of the Pharisees and Herodians, but it intended to do more than that.
The clear implication of Jesus’ words is that human nature bears the image of God in a way analogous to the image of Caesar stamped on a Roman coin. The coin’s image was Caesar’s claim of authority over the Roman Empire. In a like manner, God’s image imposed on human nature is God’s claim of sovereignty over God’s People. This irrefutable statement of faith by Jesus left the Pharisees and Herodians embarrassed and speechless.
The Pharisees and Herodians, however, failed to see that Jesus was saying their attempt at dissimulation and entrapment was also an image that reflected its maker. The fundamental dishonesty of the Pharisees and Herodians was clearly visible in their dishonest actions; they had stamped their dishonesty on their lives. The Gospel relates this story in order to lead us to ask about the image that we stamp on our lives.
The thoughts that we entertain and pursue, the choices that we make, and the people with whom we associate stamp a particular image on our lives. That image, though not visible, is clearly perceptible to everyone.
It’s easy to see a person’s loyalties. It’s easy to identify those who are staunch supporters of a particular cause, those who are not honest about their commitments, and those who have no firmly held beliefs. The Pharisees and Herodians were blind to their own dishonesty, but they were deceiving only themselves. Jesus saw their duplicity portrayed very clearly in their words.
This Gospel story poses an obvious question to each person who hears it: whose image does your life bear? Take a few moments, and think about what other people might see as the identifying characteristics of your life.
The Pharisees and Herodians got one thing right. They correctly identified Jesus based on his commitments. They said about him that he was truthful, reliable, and thoroughly committed to teaching and following God’s will. (Matthew 22:16) All people, the bad and the good alike, give clear and indisputable evidence about their deepest commitments; it’s stamped on their lives like the image on a coin. Those who claim to be followers of Jesus are believable to the extent that their lives are easily identifiable as commitments to truth, fidelity, and God’s saving will. Whose image do you bear?