When Jesus Also Doubted

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I recently came across a post that Rachel Held Evans published in March 2013 called “Holy Week for Doubters.” In it, Rachel describes the questions that many of us fear asking on Holy Week; the deep questions of faith and doubt. Those questions can often catch more of our attention on Holy Week, as we attend numerous services, travel to visit family, suffer through Good Friday, and celebrate on Easter Sunday.

It struck me as I read her post that we are not the only ones who doubt on Holy Week. In fact, Jesus endures a time of great trepidation and doubt just before his arrest. 

After Passover Jesus goes on to the Garden of Gethsemane or to the Mount of Olives, depending on which gospel you’re reading. He retreats there to pray. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s accounts, his prayer time is tumultuous. Particularly in the gospel of Luke, Jesus experiences a moment in which the reality of his circumstances come to the fore, and he is petrified.

Luke 22:41-46 states, “He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed. He said, ‘Father, if it’s your will, take this cup of suffering away from me. However, not my will but your will must be done.’ Then a heavenly angel appeared to him and strengthened him. He was in anguish and prayed even more earnestly. His sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground.” 

I have had a number of times in my life in which I felt the weightiness of doubt. I began asking questions, reading a lot, and wondering what really holds up and stands strong in the end. However, I have never reached such a point of anguish as to begin sweating blood.

Jesus knows his fate in this situation, and doubts his ability to endure it. So he seeks. And the response he receives is a heavenly angel who arrives to give him strength.

Sometimes when we doubt, we need comfort more than answers.

I often describe the spiritual journey as a Jenga tower. Do you remember that game? A series of blocks all stacked upon one another, slowly growing while simultaneously creating more holes. And if you touch the wrong block just a little too hard, the whole tower comes crashing down.

So we resist asking questions, we hold them close to our chests, in an effort to prevent all that we’ve built and all that we believe from falling to pieces.

The beautiful thing, though, is that after those blocks are scattered across the floor, we get to pick them up. And instead of building one tall tower whose pieces all have to fit just right, we can build a house. 

We begin anew with a foundation on the God who understands doubt; the One who once sweat blood in a garden, who once begged for God to change his circumstances. And we create a home. A home that we can change, that we can remodel, and mostly that we can dwell within, knowing that the ground upon which we stand has promised to remain with us always, to the very end of the age.

Frank Underwood, Tony Soprano, and Judas Iscariot

  
 I don’t know about you, but I haven’t heard many sermons that focus on Judas Iscariot. And that kind of makes sense. This week I re-read all four accounts of Judas betraying Jesus, and I found them far more shocking than I ever have before.

Typically in the telling of the Passion Narrative, Judas’ betrayal is simply one of the catalysts that leads to Jesus’ arrest. But in the anticipation of the crucifixion and resurrection, I think we can miss this very early and very scandalous element of the story.

Mark’s account of the story is the most concise. In chapter 14, verses 10 and 11 we read, “Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to give Jesus up to them. When they heard it, they were delighted and promised to give him money. So he started looking for an opportunity to turn him in.”

In Luke and John, Judas’ betrayal is Satan’s fault — Luke 22:3 and John 13:2 both state that Satan entered into Judas and encouraged him to betray Jesus. But in Mark and Matthew this takes place completely out of the blue. They’re about to celebrate Passover, but just before that one of Jesus’ faithful disciples decides not just to deny him or to leave him, but to sell him out.

This is the sort of thing that gets prime time on our TV networks these days. Shows like House of Cards and The Sopranos shaped their plots on the themes of loyalty, power, greed, and betrayal, and all of those elements are at work when Judas betrays Jesus.

The difference, though, is that in those shows the person betrayed typically inflicts the punishment the betrayer ultimately suffers. In the biblical text, though, Jesus instead invites his betrayer to dinner. They celebrate Passover at the same table, while Jesus is fully aware of Judas’ deception and abandonment.

Jesus never fails to extend grace, even to those who treat him the worst. In the ultimate act of betrayal, Judas receives Jesus’ welcome rather than his punishment. And while the story doesn’t end well for Judas, Jesus is never the one to inflict harm upon him. 

So may we, as faithful followers of Christ, accept His grace and love today. And may we be mindful this Holy Week of all of the good, the bad, and the difficult moments that led to the Passion of Christ. 

A Guide To Eucharist

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As we approach Holy Week there are a number of texts that will need their fair share of time, so I thought I’d start working through them a bit early. Palm Sunday is tomorrow (you can read about it here or listen to me preach about it here), and I will celebrate it with some friends who are Catholic and decided to return to Nashville to visit for the weekend.

I wasn’t raised Catholic, but my husband was. Between the two of us I think we have, in some form or fashion, participated in almost every Christian denomination. Each denomination has its own nuances in theology and polity (which means how they’re organized and what they do as a group). Communion is one of those topics that has divided congregations due to matters of both theology and polity, and the specificity required to discuss it can make the topic seem daunting. So I thought I’d create a little Guide To The Theology And Polity Of Eucharist as we prepare to approach the Last Supper this week. It’s not Eucharist For Dummies; rather, it’s Eucharist For All of Us Because The Topic Is SO Complex.

A Guide To Eucharist:

Theology

  • Transubstantiation — This is the belief that when a priest consecrates the bread and wine, the substance and the essence of the bread and the wine become the actual body and blood of Christ. This is the view of the Catholic Church.
  • Consubstantiation — Martin Luther developed this belief in response to the Catholic Church’s understanding of transubstantiation. Rather than believing that the bread and wine turn into the actual body and blood of Christ, Luther instead said that Christ’s body and blood are “in, with, and under” the bread and wine. They dwell together. This view also goes by the name “Sacramental Union,” and the Lutheran Church subscribes to this understanding of Eucharist.
  • Receptionism — This is the view that the Holy Spirit can work in the bread and wine to deliver the actual body and blood of Christ to the individual who consumes the elements. Christ’s presence is spiritual, rather than physical, and relies heavily on the faith of the individual who participates in the sacrament. The Presbyterian Church and Reformed traditions hold this understanding of Eucharist.
  • Memorialism — Christ is not present physically or spiritually with the bread and wine; rather, Communion is a time to reflect and remember the life and passion of Christ. Baptists and a number of other denominations follow this view; it also goes by the name Holy Communion and The Lord’s Supper. (For more information on the Theology of Eucharist, click here).

Polity

  • Wine vs. Juice — You’ve heard of Welch’s Grape Juice? It was created as an alternative to wine. Thomas Bramwell Welch was a member of the Wesleyan Methodist Connexion, which strongly rejected the sale and consumption of alcohol. In 1869 he found a way to stop grape juice from fermenting, and began marketing it to a variety of churches who were also a part of the temperance movement. Some denominations continue to use grape juice because of their stance against alcohol, while other use it out of sensitivity to members who have struggled with addiction. Still, many other churches continue to use wine.
  • Shared Cup — A number of churches serve communion to their congregants from a single cup. The individual receives the bread and either dips the bread into the cup of wine, or drinks from the cup itself. The minister then drinks whatever is leftover in the cup (including the sopping, gooey bits of bread that coagulate in the bottom of the cup).
  • Intinction — If you’re ever at a service and the minister says you will take communion “by intinction,” it means you dip the bread into the cup of wine or juice. A few years ago while I was officiating a Sunday service, I announced that we would take communion by intinction, and the first person who approached the altar grabbed the cup and took a large gulp of it. I was confused, the congregants were confused, and eventually they caught on that they should dip their wafers rather than swigging from the cup.
  • Individual Cups — Mr. Welch is a part of this story as well. When he developed his unfermented grape juice, some churches continued to try to drink the juice from a shared cup. Within a few weeks, the entire congregation would come down with same illness. One of the beautiful properties of wine is that it kills germs — the unfermented juice didn’t. Shortly after committing to using unferemented grape juice, churches realized they couldn’t all drink from the same cup without spreading germs and sickness, so they began either practicing intinction or using individual cups.

I hope this has been a nice primer on the nuances of communion. It certainly did not cover all of the nuances in theology and polity, but perhaps you learned just a little more about the sacrament we celebrate together.

Climbing Trees

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Confession: I was a back-pew sitter for three years of my life. I was young and enthusiastic about the ministry I witnessed at the new, hip church I began attending, but I sat in the back row. I remember feeling welcome in the services, but not in the community. The church was happy to have me attend, to worship, and to hear the sermon, but for some reason each of my attempts to get plugged into a small group, Bible study, or some form of community failed for the first three years of my attendance.

While I read the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10 this week, I found myself thinking back on that time in the church and identifying with Zacchaeus. You can read the full text here, but this is my summary:

Zacchaeus is a short, little guy, and a tax collector, and he hears that Jesus is coming through their town. He really wants to see Jesus, but he can’t see over the crowd of people. So he climbs up a tree, and Jesus calls to him and asks to stay in his house. Zaccheaus celebrates the honor of hosting Jesus in his home, but those in his community grumble, stating, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” In response, Zacchaeus declares to the Lord that he gives half of his goods to the poor, and that he has returned four times the amount of any extra money he took from those in his community. And Jesus responds, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

To fully understand this story, we have to understand the job of a tax collector in the 1st Century. To get the job, individuals would submit bids stating that they would collect a certain amount of money, and the person who bid the highest typically got the job. The highest bidders were also often the richest in their communities, because they knew they could use their own wealth if they didn’t meet their quotas. The tax collectors would then often hire out other individuals to collect on their behalf, and that’s why Zacchaeus is specifically cited as “a ruler among tax collectors” — he probably had subordinates working for him. The payment system required the tax collector to give the governor the amount of money he originally bid, and everything left over was his profit. So you can see how the system could get corrupt pretty quickly, and why the community may be ambivalent about helping him out.

Zacchaeus was an outsider — he was the one who collected taxes in his community, and therefore they struggled to trust him. But Zacchaeus flies in the face of their stereotypes and projections, and proclaims that he has gone overboard to remain righteous and just within the parameters of his vocation.

I can’t get over the image of Zacchaeus in the tree. He climbs up there, knowing that he is too little to see over the crowd and knowing the the crowd simply won’t help him. So he dwells up in the tree, waiting for Jesus.

It makes me wonder how many people in our lives and in our communities are waiting up in the trees. They are too fearful to face the crowd below, or the crowd pushed them up there because they didn’t believe or behave the way the crowd wanted them to. And out of their love for Jesus and their fear of the Church, they choose to live in the trees. 

The back row was a nice tree to live in — it gave me the opportunity to witness and to encounter Jesus every week. But can you imagine the sweetness of having a community who pulled me down, embraced me, welcomed me in, and led me to Jesus? I have since been blessed to experience that in a number of other congregations, and the warmth of that acceptance is indescribably good and holy.

So let’s look around us today, let’s peek up into the trees of our lives and our communities, and let’s see who may be yearning to be drawn back in.

Gratitude and Attitude

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We have a funny little saying in our household: “Gratitude and Attitude.”

I came up with it one day while my husband and I were shopping. Early in our relationship I learned that my husband reviles shopping, especially in malls. One day we had to go to a department store to get him new jeans. While he was trying on a variety of pairs in the dressing room, I ran back and forth to return pairs he didn’t want, exchange sizes, and find better styles. I thought I was doing a great job, and frankly, it was quite a bit of work. So when I returned to the dressing room with another armful of jeans, and he let out an audible, “Uuuuggghh,” I pointed my finger at him and stated, “Gratitude, sir. Gratitude and attitude!”

I realize that most people don’t spout self-help maxims in the middle of the menswear department at Macy’s, but that’s beside the point. In that moment, I saw a direct connection between the amount of gratitude we express, and the attitude we present to the world, and I decided share that realization with the fellow shoppers in our vicinity. 

The gospel of Luke depicts a similar scenario in chapter 17, verses 11-19. The text states, On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.’ When he saw them he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, ‘Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ And he said to him, ‘Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.'”

So ten men receive healing from Jesus, but only one returns, and he begins “praising God with a loud voice.” The man also happens to be a Samaritan (for more information on the relationship between Jews and Samaritans, read this article). Jews and Samaritans had a virulent relationship; yet, after receiving healing, the Samaritan comes to recognize and praise God.

His attitude changed. In the moments of healing, the Samaritan transformed from a man who was outcast and begging, to a man who was joyful and praising. 

The other nine did not return. We don’t have the ability to know how they felt, or how their attitude and outlook changed after their healing. We do know that they chose not to return to offer gratitude and praise God, though.

So may we instead emulate the Samaritan today. When you feel something bothering you and getting under your skin, take a step back, and perhaps whisper “Gratitude and Attitude.” Choose to be grateful today. Because while everything may not be perfect in any of our lives, each of us has something or someone we can be grateful for. And that one word of gratitude can change how we encounter and praise God in the world around us.

Getting Lost

  
 When my niece was a few months away from turning two, she found a new favorite toy. It was a very large balloon in the shape of the number “50” that my dad received for his birthday. Because my niece loved it so much, we kept it around the house for a few weeks after his birthday celebration. During that time, some friends visited the house while my niece was dragging around her coveted balloon, and they asked her, “Whose balloon is that?” She slyly responded, “Papi’s balloon… Mine, too.”

From an early age we like to claim and to keep track of the things we love. 

This came to mind while I read the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin in Luke 15 this week. If you’re unfamiliar with the parables, you can read them here. Essentially, Jesus tells a parable about a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to find the one who wandered off; he then shares another parable about a woman who searches her home diligently for one lost coin. Once they find their treasured items, the parables end in celebration.

Most of the sermons I have heard about these texts end with a call for us, as lost sheep and lost coins, to return to the One who left the other 99 sheep and 9 coins to come find us. And that makes sense, given that in verse 7 Jesus explains the parable, stating, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” So we establish that the parables are definitely about our return to the One who shepherds us and keeps us.

I think there’s even more going on here. Parables are meant to have layers of meaning, and there’s another layer staring right at us when we consider that sheep and coins don’t have the capacity to repent. The sheep and the coin didn’t go seeking after their keeper; rather, the keeper took great measures to go find them. While the text states that one of the parable’s points is to encourage repentance and reconciliation, the actual story depicts God seeking us when we’re lost. (For more on this reading of the parables, see chapter 1 of Amy-Jill Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus).

And this parable isn’t anomalous. We have examples of God seeking those who are lost throughout the Old and New Testaments. One of my favorite examples takes place in Genesis 16. Sarai gave Hagar to Abram as a wife, because Sarai until that point was barren. The text says that when Hagar became pregnant “she no longer respected her mistress” (v. 4), so Sarai “treated her harshly, and she ran away from Sarai.” So we have a pregnant servant who endured such punishment that she preferred to run away into the desert. And that’s where God comes in.

The text says that the Lord’s messenger (which becomes the Lord by v. 13) “found her at a spring in the desert” and asked her, “Where did you come from and where are you going?” She explains that she ran from Sarai, and God instructs her to return home. And then He blesses her, saying,

 “Behold, you are pregnant
    and shall bear a son.
You shall call his name Ishmael,
    because the Lord has listened to your affliction.
He shall be a wild donkey of a man,
    his hand against everyone
    and everyone’s hand against him,
and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen” (v. 11-12).

God doesn’t bless her with a perfect son who will be kind and gentle and will play well with others. God blesses her by showing up to her in the desert, at a well (for more on women at wells, click here), and listening to her. Not only that, but God tells her to name her son Ishmael, which in Hebrew means, “God hears.” Genesis 16 illuminates the point that no matter where we go, no matter how far we travel, no matter how lost we feel, God will come find us.

The Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin have a lot to say about us repenting and reconciling with God. Even more, though, they want us to realize that God will never leave us nor forsake us. He’s not going to let us remain lost, no matter how far we wander. So may we find comfort and direction today, as Hagar did, that know that God will always seek and find us wherever we may be.

God and Weddings

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My wedding day was the best day of my life thus far. I have heard so many wedding horror stories, and have even witnessed weddings in which the bride and groom are stressed out, strung out, and ready for the whole celebration to be over, so they can get back to their normal routines. Our wedding was the opposite. It lasted about 5 days, and every moment was way better than we ever could have hoped.

A few months before the wedding, someone imparted this rather macabre wisdom to me. She said, “the only moments in your life that everyone you love will show up for you at the same time will be your wedding and your funeral. So enjoy this one.” I know, it’s pretty dark. But in a strange way, I took it as an encouragement to soak in each moment of my wedding week.

The Bible contains so much wedding imagery, which made a lot more sense to me after my wedding day. The wedding day I enjoyed was the closest I had felt to experiencing heaven — the elation of proclaiming my love for my husband in front of God, while surrounded by every person who has helped shape who my husband and I are, and who led us to where we were in that moment. It felt holy and sacred and the closest to the renewed world God ultimately promises us.

As I read Luke this week I found another instance of wedding imagery that also contained a directive that I think most of us can appreciate. Verses 7 through 11 state, “Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.'”

Jesus uses wedding imagery to discuss the joy and honor of humility. I think this is why I love weddings so much, and was able to appreciate my wedding day as much as I did. Weddings are a time for us to witness and celebrate the love of two other individuals. Most of us would never dream of making someone else’s wedding day about ourselves — instead, we take a posture of servitude, lifting up the bride and groom and caring for them in a variety of ways. From blessing them with gifts for their home, to picking up flowers and cupcakes, to holding the bride’s dress so it stays beautiful and spotless. We love to honor others, and the bride and groom, for that one day, get to receive the celebration of those who love them the most.

In the biblical text, Jesus insists that we take that lowest of places at an honoring event such as a wedding, so that we may then be asked to take a higher place by the host. Isn’t that a posture we can take every day, though? Humbling ourselves, serving others, looking out for their needs, and trusting that one day we will experience the honor and love that we continue to give as well. So may we experience life today as a wedding banquet, lifting up those around us, treating each moment as a time for solidarity, and recognizing the love and honor in our midst.

Who’s To Say?

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I was watching the news last night (a dangerous thing to do these days) and listened to a number politicians espousing their very staunch, determined views about an array of national and international issues. What struck me most was the tone with which they spoke. It seems to me that the strong-willed resolve they portray to the nation and to one another has at least encouraged, if not catalyzed, the polarization and stark divisions in our country and the world.

In his latest stand-up, The Comeback Kid (streaming on Netflix), one of my favorite comedians, John Mulaney, discusses how adults actually have far more leeway than children have when it comes to giving concrete answers. He argues that when children have to answer “True/False” questions, they should have a third option, which is, “Who’s to say?” While most adults employ the “Who’s to say?” option fairly regularly, I realize that politicians simply don’t have that luxury in the current political climate. But can you imagine it? If politicians received a question about immigration or foreign policy, and they simply shrugged their shoulders and responded, “Who’s to say?”

All of these thoughts came to mind as I read Mark 13 this week. Verses 32-37 state, “32 ‘But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in heaven and not the Son. Only the Father knows. 33  Watch out! Stay alert! You don’t know when the time is coming. 34  It is as if someone took a trip, left the household behind, and put the servants in charge, giving each one a job to do, and told the doorkeeper to stay alert. 35 Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know when the head of the household will come, whether in the evening or at midnight, or when the rooster crows in the early morning or at daybreak. 36  Don’t let him show up when you weren’t expecting and find you sleeping. 37  What I say to you, I say to all: Stay alert.'”

The verse starts with “But nobody knows…” In political and religious discourse these days I hear very few people stating, “nobody knows.” Even when dealing with the Second Coming, which Jesus specifically addresses here, I hear a lot of people writing and talking confidently about their knowledge that we’re actively facing the End Times, or that the End Times will never happen, or that they know something concrete about the matter.

The text tells us that we don’t know, so we should stay alert. Not that we don’t know, so we should start studying and postulating and calculating; rather, that we should stay alert. Jesus says that even he doesn’t know when the end times will happen. It’s like a divine “Who’s to say?” But we are told to stay alert, to stay focused on God, and to trust that God knows God’s perfect timing. So may we step back today, may we feel humble today, and when facing questions in which we cannot know all of the answers, may we stay alert and offer a simple, “Who’s to say?”

Spiritual Insurance

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My mom got a speeding ticket last week. When she got home, she shared that she had even seen a police car and reminded herself to slow down, but her speed crept up again and another cop pulled her over. I can fully relate to this experience — I drive with a heavy foot. While my mom and I reflected on her getting the speeding ticket, we both noted that rather than staying at or below the speed limit, we drive on the border between fast and too fast. We want to stay on that boundary line between over the speed limit and ticket-warranting speed, instead of staying within the lawful and safe range.

In Mark 12 Jesus witnesses the inverse of that mentality. Verses 41-44 state, “41 Jesus sat across from the collection box for the temple treasury and observed how the crowd gave their money. Many rich people were throwing in lots of money. 42 One poor widow came forward and put in two small copper coins worth a penny. 43 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I assure you that this poor widow has put in more than everyone who’s been putting money in the treasury. 44  All of them are giving out of their spare change. But she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on.'”

Rather than giving just enough, the bare minimum, the woman gave all that she had. And Jesus honored her for it. 

Recently, I have heard some pastors discussing spirituality in terms of insurance. They claim that we do the bare minimum of some of our spiritual practices in an attempt to reassure ourselves that we have attained heaven insurance. But let’s be honest: saying a few words, or even running to an altar does not a life with Christ make. It’s the transformation of our hearts that aligns us with the Spirit and will of God — and that requires all of us. Not a one-time gift, or a bedtime prayer, but the continuous rhythm of a life with Christ that centers our hearts, our spirits, and our minds on the One who offers eternal life now and forever. 

So may we not walk through our Sabbath today like my mother and I drive, speeding over the limit, while holding back just enough to not get caught; or like those who go through their minimal spiritual practices just to reassure themselves of God’s favor, while never actually devoting themselves to follow after Christ. Instead, may we resemble the poor widow, having the confidence and strength to give all of ourselves to worship the One who remains with us always, to the very end of the age.

April 15th: Tax Time

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Taxes are an especially controversial topic in the current presidential election. I have little interest in spouting my political views on this blog, but I think that most people can agree that the 2016 election has sparked energy, concern, and even anger and anxiety among many in the United States and around the world. And one of the biggest topics on the table is taxes.

In Mark 12 Jesus addresses the topic of taxes and our political and spiritual responsibilities. Verses 13-17 state, “And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him.”

‭‭With a cursory reading of this text, we see Jesus saying that what belongs to someone should be given to them. In this case, it is a coin that bears the image of Caesar, the Roman Emperor. He also says to give to God what is God’s. Without digging deeper, we can get stuck wondering and postulating “What is God’s?” But if you look at the language Jesus chooses to use, he actually specifies quite clearly what belongs to God.

In verse 16, Jesus asks, “Whose image and inscription is this?” The Greek for “image” is εἰκών (where we get our English word, icon). The Greek translation of Genesis 1:26-27 uses this word twice: “26 Then God said, ‘Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.’ 27 God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.”

So after we realize that Jesus wants us to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s, we learn what truly belongs to God: everyone who bears God’s image. Just as we pay our monetary taxes to those to whom they belong, Jesus calls us to give ourselves to the One whose image we bear.