The Pharisees went away to work out between them how to trap Jesus in what he said. And they sent their disciples to him, together with the Herodians, to say, ‘Master, we know that you are an honest man and teach the way of God in an honest way, and that you are not afraid of anyone, because a man’s rank means nothing to you. Tell us your opinion then. Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ But Jesus was aware of their malice and replied: ‘You hypocrites! Why do you set this trap for me? Let me see the money you pay the tax with.’ They handed him a denarius, and he said, ‘Whose head is this? Whose name?’ ‘Caesar’s,’ they replied. He then said to them, ‘Very well, give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar - and to God what belongs to God.’ (Matthew 22:15-21)
What is on display in this story from Matthew’s Gospel is not Jesus’ clever reply, but the image of God he presents.
Even knowing the plot of the Pharisees and Herodians, Jesus does not refuse to enter into dialogue with them. He is the Word of God always willing to be in conversation with human beings, even those plotting against him.
In not directly answering the question put to him, Jesus leaves the response in the hands of those who ask. Jesus does not come with a list of ready-made solutions to every human difficulty. Deep attention to the word and discernment (the gift of the Spirit) help us to respond, in the tradition of Jesus, when we are trying to figure out what the right thing to do is.
God is not about taking power from us, but about empowering us to live in God’s own image and likeness.
Perhaps Jesus’ words that the coin which bears Caesar’s image belongs to Caesar means also that those things which bear the image of God belong to God – including human beings and creation. Maybe that is why Jesus didn’t walk away from his questioners. He recognises them for what they are – the image and likeness of God.
Thinking about the three parables we have heard over recent weeks we can say that the idea of giving back to God what belongs to God can be understood as giving back the love, generosity, justice and goodness we have received from God.
Just as God did not lose anything by giving us these gifts, we don’t lose anything by making them real in our lives, so that others may also share in God’s life through us.
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