“Show me the money…” Jesus does not merely engage in a philosophical or political debate with the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians in this Sunday’s gospel. He is not interested in just exchanging abstract theories of ethical and moral behavior. Jesus brings the question that his enemies propose to him in order to entrap him into the real world. Too often we place the teachings of Jesus, the way of God and the life of faith in the realm of the ideal. These are beautiful ideas and hopes but they do not really apply to the real world where we must struggle with real problems and challenges. In asking for a real coin, Jesus is giving us a concrete teaching about life. He not only foils the plotting and planning of this tenuous alliance of Pharisee and Herodian but he offers a teaching that penetrates into the very heart of our existence and purpose for being.
“Whose image is this and whose inscription?” Jesus deftly moves this question from worldly politics into the area of the anthropological truth of our origins and being. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis offers this reflection: “For those who know how to look deeply, each thing bears within itself the mark of its truest identity, the signature of its owner.” The marks that the coin that is given to Jesus bears are those of Caesar. This coin and all that it represents in economics and government belong to Caesar and the world. These things have very little importance to the “way of God”. When we give these things too much importance we are falling into the sin of idolatry. “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar…” We must find a way to be in the world but not of the world. On our spiritual journey we must have a certain amount of detachment from worldly things. We live in the freedom of the children of God and we must not fall into the slavery of idolatry and worldly commerce. Jesus does not condemn the things of Caesar, he just shows a healthy indifference to them.
“… and to God what belongs to God.” With this phrase Jesus takes us again back to the beginning and deep down into the heart of our being to discover the secret of life. If the image that the coin bears points to the rights and affairs of Caesar then those who bear the image of God and his inscribed word in their hearts point to the rightful claims of God. From the beginning “God created man in his image, in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1,27) These words of sacred scripture are inscribed in the depth of our being and each of us bear the image and likeness of God within our souls. Our deepest identity is not defined by what we have but by what we are. Pope St. Leo the Great urged his listeners in a Christmas homily, “Christians, remember your dignity, and know that you share in God’s own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition.” We were created in the image and likeness of God, we lost the beauty of that image through original sin, we have recovered the image of God in baptism through being united to Christ who is the uncreated image of the Father. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (1Cor 6,19) We do not belong to ourselves, we belong to God. God has a rightful claim on us and so we must make our journey one of returning to the Father.
Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis reflects on the relationship between the temporal and eternal that Jesus harmonizes with his teaching, “As we journey materially and temporally through the world and what we call “our life”, the real journey that matters is our spirit’s interior quest for God within us. This journey goes ever deeper into a person’s being. It is but another way of speaking of the awakening in that person of the innate image of God that is both the wellspring and the culmination of our humanness.”
As the enemies of Jesus look upon the concrete coin in their hands that bears the image of Caesar, they fail to see the one who is the true icon of the Father who is standing before them. The Incarnation makes the teachings of Jesus real and concrete in our lives and brings the eternal into the temporal and shows us a way for the temporal to be caught up into the eternal. In his mercy, Jesus shows his enemies a way into eternal life, a beautiful way into the fullness of life. Unfortunately, we are told in the gospel that “leaving him, they went away.” A very sad conclusion to their encounter with the Way, the Truth and the Life. I’m pretty sure they put that coin back into their pocket.