Sunday, October 19, 2014

What it's Worth

   Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time   A  
Two well-worn bills arrived at the Federal Reserve to be retired:
a twenty and a one dollar bill.
As they traveled together down the conveyor belt,
they struck up a conversation.
The twenty reminisced about
what an interesting and exciting life he’d had,
traveling all over the country.
“I’ve been to the finest restaurants, Broadway shows,
Hollywood and Las Vegas,” he said.  
“I even went on a lovely Caribbean cruise.
Where have you been?”
“Oh,” said the dollar bill, “I’ve been to the Catholic church,
the Methodist church, the Baptist church, the Episcopal church…”

Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,
and to God what belongs to God.

Jesus asks those trying to trap him
if he might see a Roman coin—
cleverly proving that he doesn’t carry any,
but that the holier-than-thou Pharisees sure do.
(They may not want to pay taxes to a pagan government,
but its money isn’t so tainted
that they won’t carry some of it around in their pockets.)
The coinage bore the emperor’s likeness 
and his inscription—
much like our American currency is marked
with portraits of presidents and patriots
and the signature of 
the Secretary of the Treasury.
But there’s an important difference
between a U.S. dollar and a Roman denarius:
the emperor, right there on the coin, 
claimed to be divine.
What we have here is not a conflict 
between Church and state,
but between the true God and a false one.

“Whose image is this?” Jesus asks.
You won’t find him asking for a Jewish coin
to hold up alongside the Roman one—
a depiction of the heavenly Lord of Hosts
to contrast with the picture 
of an earthly emperor.
No—on their money as on anything else,
Jewish law strictly forbade making any image of God.
Because a sharper image of God could be found elsewhere:
not carved into statues or painted on canvases
or minted as spare change,
but in human beings themselves.
As God says on the sixth day in Genesis:
“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”
God then looked at what he had made,
and he found it very good (1:26, 31).
This deeply embedded faith of the Jewish people
was quite the opposite of the idolatry that surrounded them:
instead of creating gods that resembled human beings,
they believed in a Creator who made human beings
so that they would resemble God.
That’s a faith, of course, which would be perfectly fulfilled
when the Word became flesh, when God became man.
From the very beginning,
God had been modeling the human race on Christ.  (cf. J. Lienhard)

Jesus’ teaching here is thus not so much
about taxation or the interplay of politics and religion;
it’s about belonging.
These coins bear the image of the emperor;
give him all the coins he wants;
they belong to the emperor.
But you have been created in the likeness of God;

give him your heart and mind, your body and soul, 
your energy and resources—your entire self;
you belong to God.

As it is with money,
to whom we belong determines what we’re worth.
A woman who had suffered long and intensely
once approached her pastor and said through her tears,
“I have come to realize that I’m like an old twenty-dollar bill:
crumpled, torn, and dirty, scarred and abused. 
But I’m still a twenty-dollar bill. 
I am worth something. 
Even though I may not look like much,
and even though I’ve been battered and used,
I am still worth the full twenty bucks.”

I’m thoroughly convinced
that all the hurtful things done in the world today
are done because people don’t recognize
this innate, God-given dignity:
their own, or anybody else’s.
And that’s why, on this World Mission Sunday,
we must recognize the urgent need to spread this Good News.
We are living in mission territory!
We desperately need to help people—starting here and now—
to see their true dignity:
that they’re worth something;
that they’re worth everything—genuinely priceless, in fact.
And that this immense value of theirs doesn’t come
from what they own, or who they know,
or the things they might be able to accomplish.
They are worth something
because God has grasped them by the hand, called them by name,
given them a title—even if they know it not.
They have a Father who has chosen them because he loves them.
They have been marked as God’s own
simply by being formed in the likeness of his Son.
And if they receive Baptism,
and if they endure in faith, in hope, and in charity,
then that image can be restored to its original glory.

But if we’re ever going to help anybody else
to believe this astoundingly good news,
we must first believe it ourselves.

Do I belong to God?
Have I given my whole life to him, or only certain portions of it?
Do I recognize God’s image in me?
When I look in the mirror, do I see the likeness of Christ?
Do I believe that God made me, made me out of love,
made me for a specific purpose in his plan,
and made me good—very good?
Can I see my true dignity?
That real value comes not
from power or popularity or possessions?
That every person I meet is a priceless treasure?

You are worth so much more
than any pile of coins or stack of bills.
Give to the Lord the glory due his name!
Repay to God what belongs to God.

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