Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
‘Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what belongs to God’ (Matthew 22:21). This small but mighty verse gave birth to the biblical doctrine of the two kingdoms and to the separation of Church and State. Centuries after Christ, Christian vocation, the baptismal call to love and serve God, would shift from performance of religious services, toward kindness, compassion and service of family, friends, and neighbor in daily life. ‘Render to Caesar,’ explains why secularism became a prominent consequence of the Gospel in the Western world.
In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking God has nothing to say about daily life and/or politics, but you would be wrong. Jesus’ Jewish listeners would have caught the deeper message. Roman authorities heard Jesus say what they wanted to hear, that taxes should be paid. Others in the temple that day would have heard the echo of Genesis chapter one. “…God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness (Gen 1:26-27); “…for in his own image God made humankind.” (Genesis 9:6).
They produced the coin used to pay the Roman tax from their pocket. Jesus asked them, “Whose image is this, and whose title?” Most likely, the coin bore the image of the emperor Tiberius, who ruled Rome during those years (AD 14–37). One side of the coin identified Tiberius as the ‘son of god’, while the other honored him as the ‘chief priest’ of Roman polytheism—which is to say both sides of the coin were an affront to faith.
This coin may bear Caesar’s image, but you and I bear God’s image. Caesar may have sovereignty over some of our money, but Yahweh has true sovereignty over us. Rendering to God what is God’s means giving ourselves. Two chapters earlier (Matthew 20:25-28) Jesus explained: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
An old children’s sermon begins by looking into mirror and asking, ‘What do you see?’ Children answer, ‘I see me’; ‘my smile’; ‘my messy hair’. Yes—and more besides. The most important thing for you to see is that you are a child of God. You are a child of God. You are blessed. You are loved deeply. We must pause to let that message really sink in because we can only love others as well as we first love ourselves. Now, the sermon continues, look in another’s eyes? What do you see? The answer is the same- and that simple truth begins to change everything. All people are loved. All life is miraculous and filled to overflowing with God’s abundant grace.
Roman coins are stamped with the image of the emperor. You and I are stamped with the imago Dei –the image of the living God. We are marked with the cross of Christ at baptism. We bear this sign, not to exclude those who have not been baptized, but to proclaim the love God has for all people.
Without God’s love, our vision becomes distorted and unreliable. We see what we fear. We project our fears upon others. Those unfortunate others soon become less than us. They become expendable. Their lives don’t matter. They become the innocent victims of greed and hatred. They become the targets of violence, just like six-year-old Wadea Al-Fayoume, the Palestinian boy killed this week in Plainfield, Illinois by his 71-year-old landlord who entered their apartment yelling, ‘You Muslims must die.” Apparently, ‘He was incensed at the news coming out of Israel.’
When we are blind to the imago Dei in others, it leads to tragedy. ELCA Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, released a statement this week about the Israel-Hamas war. She writes, “As Lutherans, we are accustomed to holding tension between two truths. Thus, the ELCA denounces the egregious acts of Hamas, acts that have led to unspeakable loss of life and hope. At the same time the ELCA denounces the indiscriminate retaliation of Israel against the Palestinian people, both Christian and Muslim.”
To see as Christ sees moves us from our usual win-lose way of thinking and from taking sides toward win-win solutions. Modern warfare is built on winning while others lose. Blindly pursued, most often it results in a lose-lose situation for both parties. True peace does not come from the muzzle of a gun, thicker walls, better locks, or security checks. Security comes when our neighbors are secure. It comes when we see the divine image in everyone and in everything. It comes by moving with that divine spirit hidden in, with, and under all things conspiring with us in striving for peace.
Long ago, St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), wrote about this. She said that ‘our little world mirrors the big world.’ The human soul resonates with the created world. Hildegard wrote about the ‘greening of things from within,’ in a way that sounds like what we now call photosynthesis. She recognized a readiness in plants to receive the sun and to transform it into energy and life. She also saw an inherent connection between the physical world and the divine Presence. This connection provides the energy that is the soul and seed of everything, an inner voice calling you to “Become who you are; become all that you are.”
Through the eyes of Hildegard, we see that “Nature is not a mere scenic backdrop so humans can take over the stage. Creation is in fact a full participant in human transformation, since the outer world is absolutely needed to mirror the true inner world.” As Franciscan preacher and writer, Richard Rohr, has said, “There are not just two sacraments, or even seven; the whole world is a sacrament!” Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations, “Nature as Mirror of God, 3/12/18)
See, you are marked with the cross of Christ. You are stamped with the image and likeness of God. Share the grace that is already in you. Welcome and celebrate the grace God has placed your neighbors. Remember, God is always with you. God’s love is the fuel your Christian vocation filling you with kindness, compassion, and courage in service of family, friends, and neighbors, making you a true sign of light and peace in the midst of a hurting world.