Remember whose you are

Listen to mp3 file
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A: Oct. 16, 2011
Isa 45:1, 4-6; Ps 96; 1 Thess 1:1-5; Matt 22:15-21

When I was in high school and college, and I was at the train station or the airport, about to head back to school, sometimes my dad would say to me before we parted: “Remember whose you are.”

This simple admonition captures the core of what is going on in the incident that we hear in our Gospel reading today. The opponents of our Lord Jesus are trying to trap him publicly by forcing him to say either something dangerous or something deeply unpopular. “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” they ask. If he says “no,” Jesus puts himself in the dangerous position of advocating rebellion against the imperial government and so making himself the enemy of the state. But if he says “yes,” then he offends the nationalistic desires of the occupied Jewish people, who desperately want to be free from the Roman occupation and certainly not to pay taxes to them.

It is a clever trap—not unlike what we often see in our “gotcha politics” and public discourse today. And Jesus’ answer is cleverer still: “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Not only does he avoid both the dangerous “no” and the unpopular “yes,” he also sets up an unending discussion for theologians for 2000 years and counting: Just what does belong to Caesar? And what does belong to God?

But the simple fact that Jesus sets up that division—that limitation upon what belongs to Caesar—sets up an opposition of a different sort, that has made our Lord Jesus and we his followers a thorn in the side of Caesar and every one of his successors ever since. Because every Caesar wants everything to belong to him—your heart and mind, your total loyalty, your identity, to be his, Caesar’s—and if some other Lord is going to claim your heart for himself, then there is going to be a tension, a clash. And there has been, in every land, for 2000 years.

During Jesus’ trial, Pilate said to him, “Do you not know that I have power to release you and I have power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above.” (John 19:10-11) As in the first reading, when the Lord speaks through Isaiah about Cyrus, the king of the Persians, it is the Lord who gives human authorities their position, their mandate, and their limitations.

And that mandate and those limitations have everything to do with the truth of the human person.

  • The Church teaches that “the dignity of the human person… is the foundation of all the other principles and content of the Church’s social doctrine.” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 160)
  • The Second Vatican Council wrote that “the social order and its development must invariably work to the benefit of the human person, since the order of things is to be subordinate to the order of persons and not the other way around.” (Gaudium et spes, 26; Compendium, 132)
  • “The person cannot be a means of carrying out economic, social or political projects imposed by some authority… the human person [must not] be manipulated for ends that are foreign to his own development, which can find complete fulfillment only in God and his plan of salvation.” (Compendium, 133)

And so the Church has always stood for human dignity and worth in the face of abuses by tyrants and dictators, by Nazis and Communists, and even by the Caesars of our own time and place, who too often want to abuse human dignity in economic issues, in immigration issues, in human life issues, and in family issues, among others.

And what is it that it turns on? The question of the image. Our Lord said, “Show me the coin that pays the census tax… Whose image is this and whose inscription?” They replied, “Caesar’s.” And he said, “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Caesar’s image is on the coin, the denarius. And where is God’s image?

His listeners knew. They knew well what was in the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis: “Then God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…’ God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:26-27) Here is God’s image: in you and me; in each of us. In our intellect and free will, in our creativity and personhood, in our capacity for love and for relationship, and in so many other ways, we resemble God. And there is more. The Catechism tells us (356):

Of all visible creatures only man is “able to know and love his creator.” He is “the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake,” and he alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life. It was for this end that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity…

And there is more than this. In your baptism, an indelible impression or mark was placed upon your soul, conforming you to Christ; and again in your confirmation, another indelible mark. That coin with Caesar’s image could be melted down; but your soul is immortal, and the marks of baptism and confirmation are indelible. For all eternity, those images will shine forth. And I suspect that, when the angels and the demons look upon you now, they see those images.

But what about you? Whose image do you see when you look at yourself? What colors and shapes what you take yourself to be?

  • When you look at yourself, do you see Caesar? Is it a national culture and government, with its worldly aspirations and values, that gives you your sense of identity?
  • Or do you see yourself through the eyes of your employer or your school—valuing you for what you know, and you can produce?
  • Is the image shaped by advertising—by how you compare to the neighbors next door, or the people you see in magazines or on television? And do you keep feeling inadequate and inferior?
  • Or do you see the impression of your parents—tying you to them, both their strengths and their weaknesses, the wounds that they have left in you through their imperfections?

“Whose image do you see and whose inscription?”

But Caesar doesn’t love you; your employer didn’t die for your sins; and Madison Avenue can’t make your soul beautiful or filled with peace. Whatever love and support you received from your parents and your family, it is only a shadow of what you receive as a son or daughter of God the Father, adopted through baptism into Christ Jesus. Why then do you give to Caesar and all the rest what is not theirs—time and money, your peace of mind and the best years of your life—while you ignore the One who knows and loves you with an infinite love, and who is the only one who can ever fill that God-shaped hole inside of you?

Who made you? God made me. Why did God make you? God made me to know him, love him and serve him in this world, and to be happy with him forever in the next.

“Whose image is this and whose inscription? Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

“Remember whose you are.”

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