Just a note why there is no Twenty-Eighth Sunday homily: I was in Italy enjoying a holiday with my brother and his daughters, discovering our heritage and visiting our forebears’ homes.
On the occasion of a baby’s baptism I give to the parents and godparents, among other information that I hope will be of help to them, an explanation of the tracing of the sign of the cross on the child’s forehead. I tell them that this can be interpreted as a kind of branding, something akin to what is done to cattle, for example, to mark them as belonging to their rightful owner and protecting them from theft. Although the sign of the cross is, of course, invisible after its tracing, it anticipates the visible sign that comes from the believer who receives it — the attitudes and the behavior of a person who obviously lives in union with Jesus and the one he called Father.
In the Gospel passage we just heard, Jesus was drawn into one of the many skirmishes his enemies would orchestrate to ensnare him, this one having to do with the payment of tax to the Roman emperor. That particular issue was a nasty one among the Jews of Jesus’ time because having to pay a tax to the very power that was oppressing them was simply unacceptable and absolutely hateful. Yet, there were among them some pragmatists who reasoned that it was better to swallow their pride and comply peacefully in the hope of acquiring some fringe benefits that otherwise would go exclusively to the rich and powerful citizens of Rome. On the other hand, there were other Jews, the far greater number, who actively opposed the payment of taxes on philosophical and theological grounds.
So, against that background, the Pharisees set a trap for Jesus, this itinerant preacher who was causing such a stir among the people. The question they put to him was fully loaded: “Is it right to pay the tax to Caesar or not?” If he said yes, he could easily be accused of sympathizing with Rome; if he said no, he’d be inciting rebellion against Rome. In either way, they would have succeeded in discrediting and ultimately destroying him and his mission among the people. In their minds, he had no way out.
Jesus acknowledges the clever ruse and calls its architects hypocrites. He requests from them a coin of the empire and then asks, “Whose face and whose name are on this piece of money?” They tell him the obvious, after which he responds brilliantly, immortally, “Then give it back to the one for whom and by whom it is marked – and give to God what belongs to God!”
Don’t miss the meaning of all this. When Jesus talks about “giving to God what is God’s,” he’s not referring to tithing or charitable donations or even obedience or worship or prayer. He means that they must give to God their entire selves because that and nothing less than that is what is marked, branded, as belonging to God – the human being who has come from God and is made in the image and likeness of God!
What is “giving ourselves to God?” For most of us it is not entering a convent or priesthood or a monastery. No. It is rather the most basic task of every human being, and that is to come to an awareness of the Spirit of God in us and to live our lives always paying attention to that Divine Presence and asking to be directed by it. God is love, and love – including the love that is God — can never be forced on anyone.
Our covenant with Caesar, in whatever forms that may take, can be in strong competition with our relationship to the one whose image we bear. We have to turn away regularly from the blaring noise in which we live and in silence listen to God’s voice coming from within us. That conversation will be more real and more productive than any other we shall ever have.