“Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’” — Matthew 22:15-21
What is yours? What is mine? These are the questions at the heart of paying taxes, of living in society, of being made in the image of God. In the previous post, I exhorted the paying of taxes, and the social goods that that accomplishes. But Jesus says more than that; he twists the Pharisees’ question back on to them. What does it mean to give what is God’s back to God?
The imago dei it is called: the image of God. Human beings are said to be created in it, to be formed into it, to be representatives of it. Jesus, in his twist of the Pharisees’ question, seem to be linking the image of the emperor and the money, and then the image of God — but to what? If human beings are the bearers of the image of God, what does it mean to give God back human beings? And do more things “belong” to God in the same way that the denarius belongs to the emperor?
We like to control things. To possess, to own. This tendency comes out in many ways: consumerism, the popularity of gadgets, the latest fashions. But also in abuse, in power structures, in debt contracts, in getting the last word, in framing the debate. All of these things can be evil (and some are explicitly so). They can be used to harm the image of God in ourselves and others. This image is the divine spark in all of us, consciousness say call it, or being ‘self-interpreting animals.’ Essentially, being able to have communion with another being. When we control, possess, or try to own other beings, we are not in communion with them — instead, we harm the image of God in ourselves and in them.
Giving back to God. To return. To open up our hands and let it be (cue the Beatles). It is a giving up of control of other people, of trying to possess them, but instead a communing with them and with God. The Pharisees did not like that: it required economic as well as political sacrifice for them. Giving back to God can sometimes mean not buying that product because it is it made unjustly, or because your want does not outweigh someone else’s need. It is an openness to God and to others, and to the presence of God in others. It means being broken open in all areas of life, including our wallets, to the voice and the call of God. Giving back to God what is God’s: others, ourselves, this world, our time, and our energy. Then the King can use all of it for the common good, for the coming of the Kingdom.