29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 45:1, 4-6, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5, Matthew 22:15-21
Earlier in his gospel, Matthew described Jesus sending out the apostles. “don’t take any money with you, no gold, no silver or copper” (Mat.10:9). No doubt Jesus walked the talk. I found an interesting detail in today’s gospel passage. When Jesus was questioned about paying taxes, he had no money in his pocket. “Show me the coin that pays the census tax.” At which point someone handed him a Roman coin. As he is looking at the coin, he asks: “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” Here we witness the most striking element of gospel encounter. Jesus gives a masterful answer to the question: “render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” While some may grumble about the amount of taxes paid, most of us would not object to the Lord’s injunction.
It is the second part of Jesus’s answer that proves more challenging and objectionable. We struggle with the notion that we are not our own. “[Return] to God what belongs to God.” The question of taxes hinges on the token of payment, a coin bearing the image and inscription of the emperor. What is the token of payment of our debt to God? Take time to scour the Scriptures for the answer to this question. The token of payment is not a coin, but a human person. The author of Genesis tells us: “God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him” (Gen. 1: 26). We are reminded that we bear God’s image in ourselves. If we bear God’s image, we belong to God and we must give back to God what belongs to God. We are called to return ourselves to God, we are the work of his hands and we belong to him.
We bear the image of God and are precious in his sight (CF Is. 43:4). He has no desire to lose even one of those who are his (CF Jn. 6:39). Like the woman in the parable about the lost coin, God lights a lamp (recalling that Christ is the light of the world) and searches every nook and cranny until he finds that which is lost (CF Lk. 15:8). He does this because he loves the world he created. To make his love tangible, his beloved Son, the eternal light, became a man so that everyone who trusts in him shall not be lost, but he shall have eternal life. The apostle Paul took up this theme when writing to the church in Corinth. “Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself. For you are bought with a price: therefore, glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). When we consecrate all we do in obedience to God’s will, we render unto God what belongs to God.
We are called to return all that we are and possess to God, whose image we bear. Because we have been made sons and daughters in the Son, we are to help others to return themselves to God, in whose image and likeness they are created. God is the Author of all that is true, holy, good, or beautiful. All that we have and all that we are comes from him. It is in him that we live and move and have our being (CF Acts 17:28). The prophet Micah provided excellent guidelines for rendering God his due. “The Lord God has told us what is right and what He requires of us: to act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic 6:8). As we put this counsel into practice, we will effectively render unto the Lord that which is his. “God is love. Whoever abides in love, abides in God and God in them” (1Jn. 4:16). Because God is love, the means of payment are spelled out in terms of love. “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22: 37, 39). Jesus is the faithful witness; he is the love of the Father made tangible. He is a light for our steps. He shows us the way of God, the way that God requires us to walk in, the way of duty, that leads to happiness.
My brothers, we are God’s currency, we are his treasure. On October 3, Pope Francis issued the encyclical ‘Fratelli Tutti.’ In it, he stated, “Each of us is fully a person when we are part of a people; at the same time, there are no peoples without respect for the individuality of each person” (Paragraph 182). Because we are created in the image of the Trinity, human existence reaches fulfillment in a bond of love, society thrives on the communion of all its members. Devoid of a common uniting horizon, our ancestral fear of others drives us to build walls (26-27, 37, 41), thereby weakening our belonging to a common family. We return to God what is his due by forging a new social bond of solidarity that recognizes and ministers to the vulnerability and fragility of others. Charity and compassion are not optional, they are our payment to God. Having been made in the image and likeness of God who poured himself out for love of the world, we must transcend all selfishness and create a solidarity of service of others. “Every one of us can play a valuable role if we join this journey today. Not tomorrow, today. Because the future is constructed by what we do today. It is not constructed alone but in community and harmony.” As we render God his due, let us lift our hearts using the words of the psalmist: “What return shall I make to the Lord for all His bountiful blessings toward me? I shall drink the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord” (Ps. 116:12-13).