Saturday, October 18, 2008

Repaying To God What Belongs To God

(29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

(Mass of Thanksgiving at parish of Baptism, First Communion, and Confirmation)

In today’s gospel we see the Jesus of the clever comeback. We shouldn’t miss this simple point; we are meant to cheer for our hero who eludes both the trap and turns the challenge back on his enemies.

They try to trap Jesus, because in the question of paying the tax to Rome he can’t win. Let’s notice who is sent to give the challenge: the disciples of the Pharisees, who, as devout Jews would have been set against the Romans who were occupying their country, and the Herodians who were the ruling class. Now as we all know, the ruling classes are always interested in having people pay their taxes. So Jesus can’t win. If he recommends paying the census tax, he’ll be in trouble with the Pharisees. If he says that the tax shouldn’t be paid, he’ll be in trouble with the local authorities.

But Jesus eludes this rhetorical trap by elevating the whole conversation. He offers a comeback that says: Would that we were so concerned with how we pay our debts to God! And this is a fine reflection us who find ourselves in a pretty intense election season in this country, when there is endless talk about taxes, who should pay them, and how much. (As my father used to say, the trouble is that the United States was founded on the principle that you shouldn’t have pay taxes.) But imagine what the world would be like if we were so concerned as all this for how to pay our debts to God.

To get this point across, Jesus uses a very clever analogy. He asks to see the coin used to pay the tax, and when he sees Caesar’s image on it, he recommends returning to Caesar what seems to belong to him. But then Jesus gives invites his adversaries to repay to God what belongs to God. And so we are invited to reflect on the question, what bears the image and inscription of God in the same way that the coin bears the image and inscription of Caesar? The answer is clear: it is us ourselves, created in the “image of likeness of God.”

This thing with the Roman money is a powerful analogy, and it’s worth some sustained reflection. Let’s bring it into our time though, and replace the Roman coin with one of our standard forms of money, say the $20 dollar bill. Here it is, with the image of Andrew Jackson on the front, and the image of the White House on the back. So if we are paying attention, and even if we’re not, each time we use one of these bills we are reminded of who we are as Americans. The history and the ideals of our country pass through our hands whenever we use this money, and by using it, we remember who we are as a country and what we stand for.

Now, our soul is the same way. It bears the image and imprint of the God who created it. So each time in the course of a day when we use our soul by loving, learning, praying, or just by trying to be fully present to another human being, we can be reminded, we can notice the imprint of God on ourselves. Just by paying attention to ourselves as we relate, work, and pray with each other, we can remember God. In the same way that the images of our secular history pass through our hands whenever we use our money, so the image and likeness of God in which each of us is created, passes into our relationships and becomes a holy communion between persons.

Once we have noticed the image and likeness of God in the loving actions of our own soul, we are ready to fulfill Jesus’ invitation to return to God what belongs to him. But what does it mean to return to God the soul that belongs to him? How do we do that? Well, here’s the really good news: it’s already been done for us.

This is the saving meaning of the Lord’s Resurrection. In his Passion and death Jesus takes our humanity, having borrowed it from us through our Blessed Mother, brings it through the suffering and alienation from God we have brought upon ourselves with our sins, and returns it to God in his Resurrection. So if we want to fulfill Jesus’ command to offer our souls back to God who made them in his own image and likeness, all we have to do is allow our humanity, our hearts and lives, to be caught up into the humanity of Jesus Christ. We do this by faith, by prayer, and especially through the Holy Communion we receive here at Mass. It’s here in the Eucharist that we become what we receive, become who we most truly are. It is here that we become the Body of Christ risen from the dead, offering our humanity back to the God who created us.

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