“Whose image is this and whose inscription?” Matt 22:20).
Money talks, and when it does, it echoes loudest in the halls of power.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus utters words that have reverberrated down through the long history of the debate over how to balance our obligations to God and the world, church and state, citizenship and discipleship. Is it moral to refuse to pay taxes to support some wars? Is it patriotic to criticize your government or take part in civil disobedience to protest laws you decide are unjust? What belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God?
Ordinary people around the world are facing these dilemmas, on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, in Hong Kong, at the gates of Fort Benning, home of the “School of the Americas,” or outside the huge, nuclear weapons plant in Kansas City.
Jesus does not resolve the tension or offer an answer that fits every situation. He puts the question back onto our own discernment about what we owe God and what we owe the civil societies and systems we depend upon and often benefit from. He brilliantly traps the Pharisees and their colluding partners from Herod’s court in the trap they tried to set for him. Would he reject Roman taxes and face Roman censure? Would he cow to the threat and lose the support of the crowds who saw him as their messiah?
Jesus dodges the dilemma by going to higher ground—affirming that our first loyalty is to God, who owns and controls everything. All our obligations fall within this overriding loyalty to the Creator. Rome is but a passing phenomenon in the sweep of history, so give it its due, but know that God alone is absolute and eternal.
Jesus also exposes his critics, who reveal that they carry the coin of the realm and also bear its image and likeness in their hypocritical, craven obeisance to the Roman occupation and to the corrupt reign of King Herod. They must have retreated quickly as the gathering crowds jeered them and applauded Jesus.
Two millennia later we are left to resolve the same questions about where our loyalties lie. What do I owe God first and foremost? Whose image do I bear in my behavior and witness to others? Is it possible to be a citizen of heaven and a faithful disciple of Jesus in a world surfeited and drowsy with consumption and compromise, postponing commitment and living without higher purpose? Life is short, eternity is long. What shall we give to God today?