Imagine for a moment that in our two-party political system, there emerged a third party. And that third party found a leader that gained popularity and a great following amongst the people. Imagine that this person, this new leader, threatened the status quo. That this person, according to the “Republicans” and “Democrats”, would ruin the political system as we knew it. And because of this, the Republicans and Democrats all of sudden became ‘friends’… This would be the classic of example of, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Let’s take this one step further, imagine that this third-party candidate was upsetting the status quo so much so, that Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump join in an alliance in effort to save the two-party system. It seems unthinkable that this could ever happened… And yet, and yet! This is exactly what has happened in our Gospel this weekend.
The pharisees and the Herodians join forces to trap Jesus. “The pharisees are religious patriots, bitterly opposed to Roman rule, whereas the Herodians are content to work together with the Gentile powers that be. The present alliance is made solely for the purpose of bringing down the Messiah” (CCSS Gospel of Matthew, 285). What is unthinkable in our world has happened in Jesus’ world. He offers New Hope, New Life, Freedom from Evil, but in all this he has upset the status quo for the people in power. And as a result, they hate him for it. And ignoring for a moment what they dislike in one another, they now seek to trap Jesus and bring him down.
And so, together, they attempt to trap Jesus and ask him, is it lawful to pay the census tax? Jesus asks to see the coin of the census tax and asks whose image is this and whose inscription? And they respond together, it’s Caesar’s… “The Roman coins of Jesus’ day bore the image of the emperor.” Then, Jesus says, repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.
It is in Christ’s answer that we see his brilliance. The image we carry marks with the person to whom we belong. We see this in sports fans who wear jersey’s or even masks of their favorite teams. We are in the heart of election season and so we are acutely aware of this right now. People places signs and bumper stickers to let others know to whom they belong and who they support. And many of us, out of pride for our country fly American flags outside our homes or businesses to show that we are citizens of the United States. But notice how each of these images necessarily put us against one another. Lions fans vs. Packer fans. Republicans vs. Democrats. US citizens vs. non-U.S. citizens.
The image signifies belonging. So as Christians to whom do we belong? “From the opening chapters of Genesis, we know that as human beings created by God, we bear God’s image. God’s likeness is stamped into us and upon us. God’s signature is written across our very beings. Which means — if we keep the analogy going — that we owe God everything. Our whole and entire selves. Any fantasy we might harbor of dividing up the secular and the sacred is simply that. A fantasy. We cannot separate Caesar’s realm from God’s realm when everything — everything — belongs to God” (Debie Thomas, What Belongs to God).
Here is the terrifying truth for us… When we forget that we first belong to God, we in fact become team players with the Pharisees and Herodians. When our membership is to a sports team, to a nation, to a political party, or even to our own families before our membership to God, we become participants in the mission to bring down the messiah. The world of “Us versus Them” becomes firmly engrained in us. Jesus himself said, A house divided against itself cannot stand. It is a very real temptation for us to make an alliance with a human authority or organization over our foremost allegiance and membership with God. And we know the consequences of living in a world of us verses them. This type of world is led by selfishness, power, and wealth and greed. The problem isn’t that we have sports fans, republicans or democrats, or many nations in the world. The problem in this world is we forget the right order: We belong to God first, our families second, to nations third, and somewhere after to political parties and sports teams.
How much different could this world be if we kept the proper order and saw each other first as members of God’s family? The reality is our spiritual lives, political lives, and personal lives must all cohere. But the spiritual order must always be first to remind us that we all bear God’s image. “As image-bearer,” then “of a loving, forgiving, and gracious God, maybe what [we] owe God in this hour is the … generosity [and love] he extends to us” back to him and to each other. May we choose to align ourselves with Jesus and give back to God everything. Then we might truly see a world that is led by sacrificial love, generosity, humility, service, and love for each other as members of God’s family.
In Christ’s love and friendship,