If you mention the term “organized crime”, probably one of the first names that will come to mind is Al Capone. In a lot of minds, he is the epitome of what it means to be a gangster, and was involved in everything illegal from smuggling and bootlegging illegal liquor during Prohibition, to bribing government authorities, to ordering assassination. But as much as the police knew of Capone’s involvement in these illegal activities, they were never able to pin him to anything with proof. So what was it that brought down the great Al Capone, one of the most notorious gangsters in history? That’s right. Tax evasion. Capone failed to report a number of things, and in doing so, didn’t give what was owed to the government, and ultimately, it cost him his life. So is Jesus in the Gospel telling us today to “render unto Caesar” so that we don’t end up in prison for tax evasion like Al Capone? Well, yes, I guess. But this Gospel is about more than that. It’s about rendering to others what they are owed.
We hear about Jesus’ encounter with these Pharisees and Herodians today. These two groups hated each other, but were willing to put aside their differences to focus their energy on bringing down Jesus. And so they try to trap him. If Jesus says that they shouldn’t pay taxes, he will be arrested and imprisoned by the Romans. But if he tells people that they must, he’ll come across as unpatriotic to the people of Israel. So what does he do? He takes the coin and utters that timeless phrase: “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”
Jesus focuses here a lot on images. Caesar’s image was the image of the realm. It was the face of power, a face that represented more than just Caesar, but the power of Rome itself. It was the currency of the great Roman Empire, and Roman coins were spread throughout the entire known world. But ultimately, the empire ran it’s course and fell apart. Now, Roman coins are worth more for their rarity and antiquity than their value. Like Caesar’s coins, the things of this world are temporary. We know that we have a responsibility to render to the world those things that belong to it, like paying taxes, voting, and buying things to provide comfort and flourishing for our lives here on earth. These things are important, don’t get me wrong! So go out there, and give to Caesar what is Caesar’s – but know that it is temporary.
But as powerful as Caesar’s image is, there is another image that is even more powerful, and that carries even more responsibility – the image of God. But it isn’t coins or dollar bills that bear the image of God, but our souls. Each of us, when we received the sacrament of baptism, received an indelible, irremovable mark. And that mark shows us that baptism doesn’t just make us card-carrying members of the Christian community. It doesn’t just remove the stain from original sin. It also marks us, seals us, with the mark of God, indicating that just as those coins bearing Caesar’s image belonged to Caesar, we ourselves belong to God. And that mark won’t fade away with time like the Roman Empire. It will last forever – we are God’s forever if we choose to be.
I would venture to say that most of us don’t have too many problems giving Caesar his due, and in fact, you’re probably feeling like you give him enough already. That’s not the issue here. It’s the second part that is challenging. Giving to God what is God’s – living out our baptismal dignity and making that indelible mark, that image of God on our souls actually mean something. So what do we give God? What is it that is God’s that we can give? The answer is shown to us right here in the Cross. The gift that we give is the gift of ourselves. It is a gift of self-sacrifice, a gift of self-emptying love.
“Give to God what belongs to God.” It is the gift of a mother or father to their children, providing clothes, shelter, education, faith, and despite the exhaustion and strain on the checkbook, doing it out of love. “Give to God what belongs to God.” It’s the gift to the poor – whether donating canned food to the food pantry or Scouting for Food, or offering a day to work with the Vincent De Paul Society to help those in need. “Give to God what belongs to God.” It is putting God first in our lives, by taking that one hour to go to Mass (even less if I preach shorter) even if it is a busy day of soccer games or watching the Rams lose. But it’s about more than that hour, it’s about giving the entire hour, putting aside distractions, or tiredness, or that desire to go to First Watch with Fr. Grosch in order to simply praise God, as he deserves.
As we approach the Lord in the Eucharist today, we realize the need to live in the world, but we know in our hearts that we no longer belong to the world, but to God. May we have the grace to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what he truly deserves, the gift of our whole hearts.