PRAYER: Holy and loving God, when you formed the heavens and the earth, you called everything you made good. Then you made us and called us good as well. You imprinted your image upon us and taught us about love. Remind us today of your commandment upon us all to love one another. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
Sean was a young man who grew up with my kids in Middlesex. I probably first met him when he was 8 or 9. He was born in the year between my two eldest. Sean’s father and I both served together on the board of our kids’ soccer league. Sean was a goalie and, from what I knew of him, a pretty good one.
Around his senior year in high school, Sean made a mistake. He went to a party down the shore. He’d always been a responsible kid. His father told me that they had no reason to think otherwise. But while he was at that party, someone offered him some OxyContin… Oxy. Oxycontin is among the most addictive drugs and has become a significant problem in the country, but especially among high school students. Sean became addicted.
He struggled with his addiction in private for the entirety of his senior year, but at some point, he got up the courage to tell his parents about it. As any good parents would do, they tried to get him the help he needed.
For twelve years, Sean struggled. He would go into rehab and be ok for a while… but then he would slip, and then he wouldn’t be ok. At some point, he moved onto heroin. It was a vicious circle. Sean died almost 2 years ago at the age of 30.
For that twelve-year period, Sean’s entire identity became synonymous with his addiction. It was no longer Sean the goalie, Sean the friend, Sean the brother, Sean the son… He was Sean the addict. That word – ‘addict’ – became engraved on the memory most people have of Sean. But it wasn’t just Sean. I remember hearing the rumors about him and his drug problem. And by extension, his family, his parents, his sister became identified by Sean’s addiction as well.
Within the passage from Matthew that we’ve read today, there is a very famous phrase: Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. Many have tried to boil this entire story down to that one sentence as if that encompasses everything. On the surface, it may sound like a fair deal: give to God what is God’s and give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. That’s fair, right? That’s what we all want for ourselves. Give to me what is mine; give to you what is yours. Most of us don’t want to take away from anyone else, we just want what’s ours, fair and square. But to boil that story down to this one sentence means that we lose its full meaning, just as we lose sight of all the good that came from knowing Sean and his family when we only identify him by that one word: addiction.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve been immersed in the 21st and 22nd chapters of Matthew. The chief priests and elders of the temple have been desperately trying to entrap Jesus with his own words. They keep asking him questions, hoping that he will incriminate himself, but every single time… every. Single. Time. Jesus turns the tables on them. You’d think they’d get the hint.
Well, maybe they actually did get the hint because this time, they didn’t go themselves to corner Jesus; they sent their underlings. Maybe they thought that Jesus was onto them, so if someone else asked the questions, Jesus might let his guard down and slip up. But even more than that, they aligned themselves with some people loyal to Herod. The religious enemies of Jesus aligned with the political enemies of Israel. That’s like a cat and a bird aligning together to trap the dog.
They think they have it all figured out. Oh, they’re so smart. They’re so smug. “Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” But Jesus sees right through all of this. Does the law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?
If Jesus says yes, the chief priests and the temple leaders would have had the ammunition they needed to discredit him for heresy. If he says no, then the Herodians would have had the ammunition they needed to arrest him for treason.
It’s not unlike the problem we see in the world today. So many people think about everything in terms of black and white. You’re either in this group or that group. If you like this thing, then you obviously hate that thing. We’re so polarized that we can no longer see the spectrum of what’s in the middle. We only see the polarization – the black and white. And that’s why Jesus’ response completely befuddled the questioners.
He successfully escapes the trap laid for him. He doesn’t answer the question of either/or, but instead throws the issue back on them. They who will have to decide for themselves where to draw the line between Caesar’s jurisdiction and God’s jurisdiction.
But on another level, Jesus’ response has a much deeper meaning for us all. When he asks for a coin, he also asks, “Whose head – whose image – is this”? The coin, of course, bears Caesar’s image and belongs to Caesar.
Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. What bears Caesar’s image? A coin.
Give to God what is God’s. What bears God’s image?
We may have a pocket full of coins bearing Caesar’s image, but we are not made in Caesar’s image. The earth and the sky and the sea, and all of the creatures of this world bear God’s image. We bear God’s image. We are created in God’s image. We may pay the tax that Caesar demands, but we do not belong to the emperor. We belong to God.
When Jesus makes that very famous statement, he is not putting God and Caesar on equal-footing. To do so would only elevate Caesar to the same level as God, and that would imply that we might be compelled to believe that our allegiance can be given to Caesar just as easily as it can be given to God. But Caesar is not God. We bear God’s image, and wherever humans live and operate, whether in social, economic, political or religious contexts, we belong to God. The image that is cast within us is God’s and our primary loyalties do not switch when we move from context to context. We do not exit the church and get into our cars and cease being cast with the image of God. We do not leave the church and go out to our jobs or in our communities or to our shopping centers or even our voting booths and cease to be imprinted with the image of God. For the image of God is cast upon each of us permanently.
It is difficult to imagine that Jesus would see much of anything falling outside of ‘what belongs to God’. Even the temple leaders and the Herodians belong to God. Herod belongs to God. Caesar belongs to God. So what do you suppose Jesus thought about that coin bearing Caesar’s image? He may have well said, “Give this worthless piece of tin to Caesar if you want, but Caesar belongs to God.”
If we are to give God what belongs to God, then we must give our whole selves to the One who has imprinted divinity upon us. And friends, that ain’t Caesar!
As we belong to the Creator, we should therefore find it impressed upon our hearts and souls to know more about the Creator. And as we do that, we are empowered to find the means of grace that identifies us to others as God’s possession. We are imprinted and empowered to seek justice and healing rather than power and authority. We are imprinted and empowered to see the Christ in others rather than look for ways to find fault.
The Temple leaders and the Chief Priests put their own desire for power and wealth and status above the needs of the people. Just days before this story – if not THE day before, Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers and accused the temple leaders of turning God’s house into a den of thieves. They established an environment in the temple in which the wealthy and well-connected could gain entrance, but the poor and those most in need could not.
In our world of polarized loyalties and competing demands, it becomes so easy to lose sight of the fact that we – along with the coins in our pocket – along with the idols in our lives, all belong to God. It is God’s image that is imprinted on our hearts and it is God’s image that must be imprinted on our lives, in how we love our neighbor, in how we live in our community, in how we worship God and in how we treat those who are cast aside by an uncaring world. The poor, the sick, the marginalized… all those who are similarly imprinted with God’s image.
God is the creator of this world. God created the world and called it good. God created us and called us very good. Even with God’s image imprinted on us, we still must live in the context of this world. Giving to God what is God’s is more than just a passive activity. It is an action that requires much more than we often realize. If God’s image is imprinted on our hearts and we are to give to God what is God’s, then it is clear that Jesus is telling us that we cannot be passive in our life of faith.
So often, we look at others like Sean and we see the wrong thing imprinted on them. We see the addiction, or we see the political affiliation, we see who they love, what religion they are, or whatever it is that we consider to be the flaws, and that becomes the only imprint that we perceive. No matter what demons Sean fought while he was with us, he was imprinted with the image of God, and therefore, he was beautiful in God’s eyes. I so wish that Sean knew that he was of sacred worth – no matter what.
Having God’s image imprinted on us means that we need to be ready for the life-changing life-affirming consequences that come with it. Having God’s image imprinted on your life means that the God whose love for us has never changed will never forsake you. Having God’s image imprinted on your life means that when you give God your life outside of these four walls, when you show the world the image that is imprinted upon you, you will be amazed at what awaits you. You are opening up the possibilities of the transformation that God offers each of us. So be not afraid! There will be challenges, to be sure. But the image of God which is already imprinted on your heart will guide you, it will enable you and it will strengthen you. It will reveal who and whose you are and that you are of sacred worth, precious and priceless in God’s eyes.
To God be the glory.