Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and give to God the things that are God’s.
I used to be a good judo player. Or I thought I was. Then I met Fitz. Fitz was a wrestler – not the Giant Haystacks kind of wrestler, but an olympic wrestler who did judo in his spare time for R&R. As an international sportsman, Fitz was incredibly fit, and incredibly skilful. He was only a little guy, but he could throw me at will. And he did. Often.
Week by week, in Matthew’s gospel, we find Jesus’ opponents pitting themselves against him in verbal contest. And again and again, with a few deft words, he defeats them. This week, they thought they had him. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” If Jesus said yes – then he would appear to be siding with the enemy, the hated, occupying force. If he said no, he could be accused of treason – the Romans killed people for less.
So Jesus asked for a coin. “Who’s image is that?'” he said, looking at the coin. “Caesar’s”, came the response. “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” – what a brilliant politician’s put-down, a model of studied ambiguity. But now comes the knock-out punch that no-one was expecting. “And give to God what is God’s”
Give to God what is God’s? Who said anything about God? What does the question even mean? To answer that question, we must go back and answer an earlier, unspoken one: what belongs to God, anyway?
According to the Jewish/Christian tradition – everything belongs to God. “The Earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it; the world, and those who dwell in it” (Psalm 24). And for the person of faith, that has big implications for how we live our lives.
First of all, it draws our attention to the natural world and leads us to a sense of wonder and astonishment. The Hebrew bible (Old Testament) is full of amazement at the splendour and majesty of nature. Try the book of Job, and you’ll discover word-pictures of creation that Shakespeare himself would be proud of. And for people of faith, that sense of astonishment leads naturally to a desire to worship God as creator.
Second, the desire to “give to God what is God’s” leads us to be generous. We have a saying in Yorkshire:
Hear all, see all, say nowt
Eat all, drink all, pay nowt
And if ever tha does own for nowt
Do it for thissen
(Hear all, see all, say nothing; eat all, drink all, pay nothing; and if ever you do anything for nothing, do it for yourself).
Our relationship to God can be like that: he’ll get what’s due to him, but no more. A better approach is to be generous givers – to think of our time, our lives, our love, as gifts we should give as freely as we have received them.
And finally, we are called to be thankful. Sometimes that’s easy. On Monday, its my 60th birthday, and by Monday evening I fully expect to be thankful – and if I’m not, I shall be seriously grumpy about it! But the Christian tradition teaches us to be thankful even when things are not going well. When St Paul wrote “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (Thessalonians 5) he really did mean in all circumstances. And Paul lived through circumstances that most of us could never imagine.
In summary, giving to God what is God’s, leads us to a sense of wonder at the world’s majesty, to generosity of life, and to being thankful in all circumstances – all of which lead us to raise our heads and expand the range of our vision – to look beyond ourselves and our immediate daily concerns, and to focus on community, on the world – and on God.