“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
How we understand what this one verse says, may reveal more about the way we think, than it does about what it actually means.
As residents of a country that has been founded on the separation of church and state, we have often understood these words to suggest that there are two realms – the civic and the religious; and never the twain shall meet. Politics should be here (point to one side) and religion should be there (point to the other side).
However, this interpretation misses the point. Entirely.
When Jesus asks his inquisitors to show him a coin, he uses a particular word for “image.” Yes, Caesar’s image is on the coin. We are to hear the word “image” (pause) and remember Genesis Chapter 1: that we are made in the image of God. God’s image lives in each and every one of us. Thomas Merton writes, “To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity . . . Love is my true character. Love is my name.”
Caesar’s realm is but a speck within God’s realm. The days of Caesar’s realm are numbered, but God’s realm is eternal. In other words, don’t give over to Caesar , anyone, or anything that belongs to God, especially that which is most important: YOU! Your mind, your heart, your life.
In that same chapter of Genesis, we hear about all that out of love God gives to us: stewardship of the earth and everything we need to live. God has given us the gift of life on this amazing planet. The question is: how out of love do we respond to such a gift? How can we make our lives a gift of love in return to God?
The question about whether paying taxes to the emperor is lawful begs other questions: What values are at the heart of the everyday decisions we make? How can we make all that we do – everything from how we pay our taxes to how we spend our money to how we spend our time – a gift of love to God?
The truth is that we often live as if someone or something other than God has dominion over us. We can forget who we really belong to, whose image we bear. At certain points in our lives, we may feel like we are owned by our jobs, or the demands of family life, or the culture. We may feel like we are owned by our preoccupations, fears, or addictions. We may even recognize that some political or corporate powers seek to manipulate us so that we feel like we have little to no control over our time or our decisions. In particular, the purpose of what is now called the “attention economy” is to manipulate getting more and more of our monetized attention, with the result that we end up feeling owned by our devices.
No matter what these various alleged emperors suggest or demand, we belong to God, in whose image we are created. This also means that there can be no separate calculations about how we conduct our business and how we conduct the rest of our lives; about what we do on Sunday and how we live the rest of the week. And because all of us bear God’s image, we are called to give our respect and love to others, too. Our lives are about so much more than the individualistic pursuit of what’s best for me and mine, as certain emperors suggest.
When my Great Aunt Isabelle was in the 8th grade, she told her parents that she would like to become a nun. This was how she thought she could best give her life to God. It was the height of the Depression and the family was struggling to make ends meet. So, they denied her request and told her that she needed to stay home and help contribute to the household. She was heartbroken. In their wisdom, my great grandparents also told Isabelle that she did not need to leave home to serve God. They were right.
There is no different place we need to go to give our lives to God. What makes the difference is the intentionality with which we live our lives. From home, Isabelle became a woman of prayer and service. Over the course of her life, she stepped up time and again to help family members who were struggling with illness and financial challenges. For seventeen years, she helped her sister, my grandmother, care for my mother with debilitating Huntington’s Disease. All the while, she generously contributed to her church and many organizations doing God’s work – especially the work of caring for the poorest of the poor. Her home was like a shrine and her heart was full of love.
After my son was born, we visited Auntie Isabelle each week. We learned that she spent a good deal of her week preparing for our visit. When it was time to go home, I always left with bags full of groceries, future dinners, and homemade desserts. Auntie’s life was marked by what she gave to God by generously and joyously giving to others.
No matter what your situation in life is like right now, it can be a gift to God. When we consciously offer our thoughts, words, and actions to God – from the mundane to the sublime – we open the door for God’s grace to strengthen and transform our every thought and action for the good. Even the most simple act can be elevated by the loving intention behind it. This includes our political actions. Debie Thomas writes, “We can’t isolate our political choices and actions, as if they don’t reflect who we are as image-bearers of our Creator. If everything belongs to God, then our spiritual lives and our political lives must cohere… Our “rendering unto Caesar” must always take second place to what we render unto God.”
As we get closer to the election and the number of COVID cases rise in Gloucester and other places, feelings of uncertainty and worry are likely to escalate. In the face of this, it is essential that we remember no matter what happens, we bear God’s image and can make our lives a gift of love.
Please close your eyes or lower your gaze if you feel comfortable and bring to mind the key moments of last week – times when you made choices about how to spend your time and where to spend your money. Did you think about the things you were doing – your paid and volunteer work, your time with family or friends, your other activities – as a gift to God? Were your choices grounded in the patience, courage and generosity that comes from being rooted and grounded as a child of God? Does the way you are living reflect the truth that all of you belongs to God? That you bear the very image of God? That you recognize that others bear the Divine image too?
What might happen if in the month ahead, you were to show your love for God and God’s creation through the choices you make: on your grocery list, your election ballot, and your calendar? What might happen in the month ahead, if you were to look at your money as an instrument of making your life a gift to God? What if you were to put a symbol that signifies the sacred to you, perhaps a cross, a heart, or an earth icon, on your grocery list, your calendar, your checkbook or credit card to help you remember that your life is a gift from God and a gift to God?
The story of Jesus is the story of someone whose life and even whose death became a gift, helping us see that even in the worst of what can happen in this life- like death on a cross – that God’s transforming grace is at work; that out of death; comes the gift of new life, of resurrection. We are to remember that the seeds we plant in this life can grow in ways we may not be able to imagine when we are gone. We can take heart that the way we approach our death and the way we die can become a gift.
After my grandmother died, I promised Auntie Isabelle- who never had children of her own – that I would continue to be there for her, as she was for my mother and grandmother. When my brother, who was struggling with Huntington’s Disease, asked if I would move from Wellesley back to New York to help him, I said “yes” without hesitation and then felt horrible that I would not be keeping my promise to Auntie. Well, within a month of my brother’s request, Auntie died – leaving me a clear conscience and enough money to buy a house in New York that would be suitable for my brother, my son, and me. Even in death, Auntie’s life was a gift. There is nothing we can experience, not even death, that can not become a gift to God.
St. Ignatius of Loyola knew this. He understood that in response to the gift of God’s love, we can make all of who we are and all of what we do, even up to the last breath and beyond, a gift to God. Take to heart the words of prayer he wrote, called the Suscipe:
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding and my entire will
– all that I have and call my own.
You have given it all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours, do with it as you will.
Give me only your love and your grace.
That is enough for me. Amen.