It is with an ever increasing frequency that I am surprised by the discovery in the Sunday readings of something never before noticed. I suppose I must have preached on...
Whose image, “likeness and inscription” is on the ‘coins’ I value and use in my daily life and living? I am not talking about monetary currency! The word image was added deliberately! Before I am able to honestly answer the question posed of Jesus in
TODAY’S GOSPEL [MATTHEW 22: 15 – 21] it will be helpful to recall other words spoken by the Lord in an earlier chapter – “no servant can be the slave of two masters …. he will be devoted to the first and think nothing of the second.“ [Mt 6: 24 (part of the sermon on the mount which sets out the basics) and repeated in Lk 16: 9]
Yet another part of the puzzle is to be found in our
OLD TESTAMENT EXTRACT [ISAIAH 45: 1. 4 – 6]. There we read and will hear proclaimed, “I call you by name, I surname you …“ I am somewhat hesitant about our translation when it turns the noun surname into a verb?! How on earth does one surname a person?! The KNOX VERSION provides something more meaningful when it translates as “I have found a title for you.” Here, the Zulu word isibongo is powerful – clan name! As Christians our title is our clan name – GOD’S PEOPLE. The Lord God is the head of our clan, our tribe! Here is where I belong … where my roots are.
Now, if my own image is on the currency I use in planning, living and executing my life there will be a basic problem. I will find it impossible to be devoted to my isibongo if my own likeness and inscription are on the ‘coins’ I value more than my basic title. The real problem with the Pharisees is to be found in the reality that the ‘currency’ they valued more than anything else had their own images, likenesses and inscriptions on it. At the same time they were trying ever so hard to placate and live with Caesar but also to keep the outward appearances of their isibongo. Our Gospel extract tells us that they “took counsel how to entangle Jesus,“ forgetting that they themselves were the only ones entangled. They were trying to serve two masters and ended up being devoted to neither.
It is very easy (and often tempting!) to entangle ourselves by not only forgetting our foundational clan name but by becoming overly simplistic – and in so doing “put (him) to the test.” What is actually happening is that we put ourselves to the test. Jesus’ answer is absolutely and completely correct – “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” It is essential for us to open the meaning of Caesar much wider than our own contemporary civil authority. Our isibongo must be seen, accepted and OWNED against the background that I belong to God before I belong to Caesar or the other ‘caesars’ on which I have engraved my own image, likeness and inscription. In fact, Caesar is nothing without God – and it is worthwhile to be reminded of this. Once the ‘caesars’ are turned into gods it will always be difficult to know clearly and firmly what is actually ‘of God’, what is ‘of Caesar’, and what must be rendered to whom.
Remember the entanglement of the Pharisees … It is very dangerous to hedge our bets!
The reality of our isibongo is set out clearly in TODAY’S PSALM [96 or 95] which tells us: “for the Lord is great and highly to be praised … the gods of the nations are naught … give
the Lord glory and power … say to the nations ‘the Lord is king’.” Then, add something from the Isaiah reading to the foundation: “I (isibongo) you … I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God. … I am the Lord, and there is no other.” The final statement is repeated twice within a few verses. It must be the Lord’s image, likeness and inscription which should be engraved on the currency of life that I possess and put to use.
Yes, we will always be challenged by the vagrancies of life and living. We only have to see the sermon on the mount and notice that no less than six times does Jesus juxtapose the phrases “you have learned … but what I tell you is this …” Saint Paul in TODAY’S NEW TESTAMENT EXTRACT [1 THESSALONIANS 1: 1 – 5b] provides us with some encouraging advice: “… your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope … for our Gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit with full conviction.“ We have to be convinced of our isibongo – and remain steadfast to it.
“You have learned …. but what I tell you is this.”
Caesar is constantly trying to make us learn lessons which are contrary to our work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness. This is where our full conviction must come into play.
“Render to …!”
I find it fascinating that the word render which means to cause to be or become, finds its root in the verb rend which means to tear or wrench forcibly. When we have our ‘caesars’ under control we are free to render, cause and become faithful to our isibongo. When our other ‘gods’ come to the fore we begin to rend – tear and wrench ourselves forcibly out of shape.