We have 18-month-old twin boys who live next door to us in Seattle. We have known them since they were born – before, even: we were among the first to see their little bodies forming via the miracle of a sonogram. We visited them in the hospital during their long, early stay there. We made banners for their front porch to welcome them home. We think having them next door is pretty darned cool.
On Fridays, when we each have the day off, my wife and I often have one or the other over for a play date. It’s a great chance for us to get to know them better, and to watch them grow up. Having them one at a time gives them an experience that they don’t often get, and it keeps us from nagging our own kids too much about grandchildren.
These days we read and paint. We build with blocks and snack on grapes or apples. You can always tell when it’s about time for a nap – eyes begin to droop to half-mast and there’s a lot of pulling at the ears and twisting the hair. That’s when we know that this visit is about over and it’s time to go home.
Clearly Jesus was not a twin. And to the best of my knowledge, he’s never been to our house for a play date. But when Matthew tunes us in to this story about the Pharisees and Herodians we find ourselves in the part of the story of Jesus where he is just about ready to go home. This is Holy Week. He’s already ridden into Jerusalem. He’s been to the temple to chase out the moneychangers, cursed the fig tree, told a couple of vineyard parables, and had his authority questioned by the religious officials. There’s no question where this story is headed. The plot line to the cross is clearly established; it’s now just a matter of hours.
And into this final episode of Jesus’ life, just before he goes home, Matthew has tricksters appear in the story. Men who ask a seemingly ridiculous, out-in-left field kind of question: Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? It’s a little like asking Weston or Luca when they’re pulling at their ears and walking around in circles: Do you think Hilary will run in 2016?
But just beneath the surface of this story, Matthew has a rich and important point to make. And it’s not just the point that Jesus is quick on his feet: Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. It’s much deeper than that. It’s about identity, and knowing who we are, and to whom we belong, and where we are headed when, in fact, we’re headed home.
I find it interesting that while Caesar has a coin and an image to represent him in this story, God does not. It is clear what to give to Caesar, because right there on the coin is his image. Clearly, Jesus teaches, the coin belongs to the Emperor. But from there it all gets a little more hazy. And give to God the things that are God’s. But there’s no coin, no representation, no cue as to what those things might be. All we’ve got, at the end of the day, is a coin and Jesus.
And that is precisely the point. I am what belongs to God, Jesus teaches. YOU are what belongs to God. Let Caesar have his coin. But know who you are and to whom you belong. It is God who knows you by name. God who calls you. God who has printed an indelible stamp and image on you. Your life belongs to God. So give the coins to the emperor. But watch me, and learn from me, Jesus says, as I give my life back to God.
One of my favorite moments in each of Luca or Weston’s visits to our house is that moment when we all finally give in and realize that play time is over and it’s time to go home for a nap. Anyone who knows our family well knows that we are steeped in ritual so there is a going-home ritual for the boys. A final cuddle and a story in the front room, and then always – always – the same question. Are you ready to go see Luca? Or on Luca’s visit day, Are you ready to go see Weston?
The face of the one who is with us brightens. He slips from our lap, runs to the door, and reaches for the doorknob that he cannot yet turn. He knows who he is. He knows he’s going home. And he knows a beloved brother is waiting.
It occurs to me that those of us who are marked with the indelible cross of Christ in our baptism have something to learn from 18-month-old twin boys. Part of our privilege today in worship is to get re-immersed in the waters of our baptismal identity and equipped to slip out of the lap of complacency and fatigue and run to that door where we know that there are beloved brothers and sisters waiting. Waiting, just waiting, to hear a word of kindness, or justice, or mercy from one marked with the cross of Christ.
When Jesus says, “and give to God the things that are God’s,” I think this is exactly what he has in mind. YOU are God’s. You. And the world needs you. Give YOURSELF to God. The way we do that is by responding to the sound of our brothers’ and sisters’ names and reaching to them in love. As the coin is to Caesar, so are we to God.
A feast awaits to fatten us up and embolden us for service to those out there in the world that need us. It is no ordinary feast, but the food offered by the one who was the first to offer it all to God. There is bread and cup for the body of Christ. The work we are called to is not always easy or clear. Eat up. Drink deeply. This is the feast of victory for our God. We will need all the nourishment we can get to run out there in the world and be who we are – the ones who belong to God.
In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.