Then the Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap him in speech. They sent their disciples to him, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census to Caesar or not?’
Knowing their malice, Jesus said, ‘Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? Show me the coin that pays the census tax.’ Then they handed him the Roman coin. He said to them, ‘Whose image is this and whose inscription?’ They replied, “Caesar’s,’ At that he said to them, ‘Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.’
Rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s is found both in the gospel of Mark and the gospel of Matthew. The two parables are different, but important in understanding the lesson that follows. In one parable we come to understand what belongs to God, and in the other, who controls the timing and invitation to God’s Kingdom. The phrase “Repay to Caesar what is Caesar and to God what is God’s” is not mutually exclusive, one guides the other.
In Mark, Jesus tells a story about a man who labored and built a vineyard and leased it out to tenants and went on a long journey. At the proper time, he sent his servants to obtain a sample of the produce of the vineyards. Some servants were beaten, others killed, all were sent away empty handed. When the owner sent his beloved son, thinking that they would respect him, they killed him desiring his inheritance. When Jesus posited to the crowd what the owner would do, they said the owner would kill the tenants and give the vineyard to others. To which Jesus responded: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
So in this story, what belongs to God? The tenants believed that the fruits of their labor were theirs alone. How many of us still believe that? We forget that all we have comes from God. When God asks us for something, a mere sample, we are expected to give it, but not to show how generous we are, but as a sign of gratitude and a reminder that it was never ours to begin with. Remember in the story all the owner is asking for is for a sample of the produce, not enough to ruin the tenant but simply as a reminder of what they owner gave them since he labored and built it up to begin with. Celebrating all that God has built for us should be the only incentive we need to share our good fortune. The rejection of the Owner’s son happens every time we fail to understand that all our gifts come from God and when we refuse to share with the least of our brothers and sisters, we are refusing God. It is the least among us that the Kingdom is built on. Face it, we are all tenants on this earth at the grace of God.
In Matthew’s version, he likens the Kingdom of God to a King who gave a wedding feast. When the feast was ready, he dispatched his servants to invite the guests to share in his celebration but they wouldn’t come. He dispatched other servants and implored them to tell his guests that the banquet was indeed ready, the fatted calves were prepared for the feast. Some ignored the invitation, others went on to their businesses or farms. Still, others took the servants and killed them. The King was enraged and destroyed the murderers and their city. He declared the feast was ready but that those who were invited were no longer worthy to come. He told his servants to invite anyone they could find. The hall was filled with the good and the bad. And yet when he saw someone who was not dressed in a wedding garment and and was silent when questioned about it, the servants were instructed to throw him out. Jesus ended this story with “Many are invited, but few are chosen”
In this story, it is important that we realize embracing the Kingdom of God is not only being invited into God’s grace, it is actually showing up for the celebration…in God’s time. It is so easy to become so involved in our daily comings and goings that we have no time for God. That is just unacceptable. God’s time is just that…God’s time. We are here at His pleasure, not ours. We need to be ready, in the appropriate garb, at all times. So what does that actually mean?
When Jesus says “give to Caesar what is Caesar and to God what is Gods,” I think he is making a clear distinction of what belongs to a worldly view and what belongs to a Godly one. These stories help illustrate what belongs to God. In the first, it is clear that God is the owner of the vineyard…and we are only tenants. When God asks us for our talents, we don’t have the right to say no. He rejects the idea that the tenants have no obligation to give back. The selfishness, insolence and ultimate disrespect by the murder of his son is their undoing. In the second story, when we are called to celebrate at the wedding feast, at his appointed time, he is so put off by the disregard of his invitation that he effectively dis-invites them by burning the city and he opens his doors to anyone who would come, yet still expecting wedding attire…our best selves put forward. I used to be more confused by this parable…how could the invitees act so horribly? I understand it better now. Jesus is the bridegroom, we are already joined to God, by his grace. We should know that every moment of every day we should be celebrating with God. You don’t accept God’s invitation and continue to live on your own time, and on your own terms.Too many people think that being on the right team is all that is what is expected of us, that there is no demand on how we live and carry on in the world, that we can do what we will in the meantime. That is so much bullshit. We come when we are called, every day and in every way.
What belongs to God is sharing the fruits of our labor, and putting all else aside to celebrate the Kingdom when we are called. I can’t help but believe that those who dwell in the muck of this election, by perpetuating the vitriol and pointing the finger of judgement are behaving just like the protagonists of these two parables. Behavior I never thought possible from those who claim to be Christians. I am so tired of it, and I know many of you are too. Giving to Caesar is nothing more that the price of living in a human created construct. Giving to God is a declaration and expression of what is expected of us when we accept God’s invitation and all the gifts He has shared with us. So lets embrace each other as God’s people and celebrate all we have been gifted with and put our best selves forward as if we were celebrating at a great wedding feast everyday…and worry less about Caesar.