(Begin by reading the Gospel. Sometimes it is good to have someone read it to you. It is good to hear the Word of God.)
Often in the Gospel readings we hear about Pharisees. Many of the Pharisees are good and faithful people who study the scriptures and try to live the covenant with God the best they are able. However, there is a group of Pharisees who feel threatened by Jesus. They do not like that he keeps teaching them about the Kingdom of God. They are concerned that people listen to Jesus' teachings instead of to their teachings. They have taken their eyes off the Kingdom of God. They forget that whatever helps to build the Kingdom is good; whatever serves to break down the Kingdom should be discarded. They forget that they are all on the same side, serving the one True God. They challenge Jesus, waiting for him to make a misstep, wanting him to do something wrong.
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’
The group of Pharisees bring with them some of King Herod's people. (This is not the same King Herod who tried to kill Jesus when he was a baby; it is his grown-up nephew.) Although Herod is Jewish and not Roman, he has some power given to him by the Romans who have taken over Israel. Herod loves money. He and his people are rich because Herod has ties to the emperor back in Rome.
These two groups of people begin by trying to flatter Jesus. (Do they actually think that he will fall for that? Do they think he won't realize they are up to something nasty?) Then they ask Jesus a question about taxes. It seems like a straight-forward question, but they are trying to trap him. How is this a trap?
The scriptures give some guidance about taxes. The scriptures guide the faithful to give money to the Temple, to the priests who do not work for money but serve only the One True God. The Pharisees might expect Jesus to proclaim that the faithful do not need to pay money to the Romans who are not followers of the One True God. Many of Jesus' followers would love to hear this. They believe that Jesus is the Messiah who will lead a revolution to make Israel free again, to be the land promised to them by God. But if Jesus proclaims that taxes to the Romans are not lawful, Herod's people will run to Herod, who will tattle to the emperor, and Jesus will be arrested.
If Jesus wants to avoid trouble with the Romans, and says, yes, it is lawful to pay money to the them, he could step into the other part of the trap. First, he will look like he loves money as much as Herod does. But more than that, the scriptures say that there is only One True God, yet the Roman emperor wants people to worship him. The scriptures also say not to make an image of God, because you might worship the image instead of God, and the emperor has put his image on all these coins. If Jesus says paying taxes is lawful he will show all his followers that he is not a good Jewish man.
He is trapped. Or so they think.
But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.”
(Notice Jesus isn't the one who loves money. He doesn't even have any.)
And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
What has Jesus done? He has avoided the trap, but how?
In one sense, it seems like he has separated the two groups.
Herod's people, relax, the taxes will keep coming.
Pharisees, focus on God, and by the way, stop trying to trap me.
But that does not seem entirely satisfactory, does it? How can God be put into a group? Isn't God above all groups?
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s...” I wonder if this is Jesus' way of saying, don't worry so much about it. Taxes, created by a human, are neither bad nor good. It is true that no one likes having to pay them, and some people get rich from collecting taxes from the poor. But it is also true that taxes can be used to help people. The crowd only has to look down at the roads they are standing on, the roads the Romans have been building using their taxes. The crowd doesn't know it now, but those roads will last for millennia.
All things can be used to build the Kingdom of God. From this, St. Ignatius learned and taught that things created by humans are not themselves bad or good, lawful or unlawful--however, what we choose to do with them is. Will we use the things we have to build the Kingdom or will we use them to break it down? “Give therefore to the emperor...” If the emperor desires taxes, pay them. Now it is up to him whether he builds the Kingdom or not.
But what about the things that are God's? It is easy to see that the coins are the emperor's because his face is stamped on them. They are marked as his own. But what has God's image stamped on it?
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female God created them. (Genesis 1:27)
We know that each of us has been created in God's image. In Baptism, we are marked as God's own. The sign of Jesus' cross is imprinted on our foreheads by the priest, by our parents, by our godparents. We belong to God.
“Give...to God the things that are God’s.”
How will we give ourselves to God? This is a question we can ask ourselves each morning, isn't it? What will we do today, what choices will we make, how will we build the Kingdom? We belong to God...how will we offer ourselves to God today?
We are given one way to do this solemnly--to make of ourselves a sacred offering. There is a moment in the Mass, after we have recalled together Jesus' complete offering of himself in the bread and in the wine. To the world, to us, to God--he gives his body in the bread, and his life poured out in the wine. And he says,
Do this in remembrance of me. (1 Corinthians 11:24)
Give all of yourselves, he says. There's room in this chalice for you.
The priest takes the bread and the wine--the wine that embraces a little drop of water, so lowly like us--and he lifts them high, offering them to God:
Through him, and with him, and in him,
O God, almighty Father,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
all glory and honour is yours,
for ever and ever.
Then we offer ourselves together with Jesus, by singing joyfully to God,