Most of us who have been raised in church-going families will recognize the phrase, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's." The story is well-known. It's recorded three times in the Gospels, in the books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
The story tells of a group of sinister Pharisees looking for a way to trap Jesus by his own words. All they had to do was either turn the crowds against him, or have him legally arrested by the Romans. So they asked him a question. A simple, clever, devious question:
Mark 12:14 - "Teacher... we know how honest you are. You are impartial and don't play favorites. You teach the way of God truthfully. Now tell us- is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay them, or shouldn't we?"
In their minds, they had Jesus cornered. If Jesus answered "Yes," saying that the Jews should pay taxes to Caesar, the crowds would turn on him. They were oppressed by the Romans. They hated the Roman government. They were awaiting the zealous, rebellion-leading Messiah who would deliver them- so how could Jesus be the Messiah if he was telling people to pay their taxes to Caesar?
However, if Jesus answered "No," saying that they Jews shouldn't pay their taxes, the Pharisees would have charges to bring against him. They could accuse him of stirring up rebellion. Unrest. Revolt. The Romans could swoop in, arrest this Jesus-man, and everything would go back to the way it used to be.
But their scheme couldn't have been more obvious to Jesus.
Mark 12:15-17 - Jesus saw through their hypocrisy and said, "Why are you trying to trap me? Show me a Roman coin, and I'll tell you." When they handed it to him, he asked, "Whose picture and title are stamped on it?
"Caesar's," they replied.
"Well then," Jesus said, "Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God."
It's a great line. Simple, concise, and foolproof. It did exactly what it was intended to do: it struck them speechless. The passage says that "His reply amazed them."
I know this story backwards and forwards. I've read the incredible one-liner many times before. But just the other day, for the first time, I paused in my reading. And I asked myself, Wait a minute. We're told to 'Give to God what is God's' ... but what is God's?
And I realized that I didn't know. All the times that I'd read this cool little catchphrase, I had never once asked myself the question: What does belong to God?
I read the short passage through two or three more times, and it hit me. Jesus' implied message, which had gone way over my head before, was finally made clear to me. The Pharisees were scholarly. They were the elite thinkers. They were the masters of the Law and of the ancient Scriptures, and they also held political power. The fact that they came up with such a shrewd question to stump Jesus with shows their cunning. They knew which strings to pull. They knew how to cater to the crowds, and how to "suck up" to the Romans. Jesus, then, recognizing their intellectual prestige, blasts them out of the water with his statement.
In order to define what "belongs to Caesar," Jesus asks for a Roman coin. Looking at the coin, he asks, "Whose picture and title are stamped on it?" Obviously, the answer is Caesar's. Satisfied with their answer, Jesus brings in the kicker: "Well then, give to Caesar what is Caesar's." Meaning: give to Caesar that which bears its image. All coins were stamped with the picture of the Roman Emperor. Whatever bears the image of Caesar, then, belongs to Caesar.
"...and give to God what is God's."
Jesus leaves it at this, because the listeners would have understood what He was implying. The parallel He drew could only mean one thing: If coins which bear the image of Caesar belong to Caesar, than whatever bears the image of God must belong to God.
Genesis 1:26 - Then God said, "Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."
Genesis 5:1-2 - When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And he named them "Mankind" when they were created.
That would be you. That would be me. That would be all of humanity.
Like the coin of Caesar's, we bear the image of our Creator. He has designed us in His own likeness. He has stamped His fingerprint on our bodies. In our physical make-up, we bear his resemblance. The capacities of our minds mimic his own. The depth of our thoughts, the vibrancy of our imaginations, our ability to feel emotion... it all comes from Him. We have some kind of 'personality' that separates us from each other. Individuality. Identity. Hobbies, passions, interests, preferences, idiosyncrasies. We can love, we can hate. We can feel joy, we can feel sorrow. We can ask questions. We can think critically. We can design and create, because we were designed and created by the Original Artist. The Author of Life.
All of these things that separate humanity from the rest of Creation is exactly what Jesus is referring to. Instead of asking for a coin, He could have asked, "Show me a human being. Whose image was he made to represent?" To which we would respond with, "God's."
And then He tells us: "Give to God what is God's."
That's what's required. Taxes are not 'gifts' from the people to the government, they are simply what is owed. In the same way, our lives are not our own. Our bodies are on loan to us from Above. In the words of Jon Foreman, "This skin and bones is a rental."
Render unto God what is God's: Your soul. Worth more than coins. Worth more than sacrifices. Worth more than words. Worth more than songs, poems, charities, tithes, deeds, and blogs is your very soul. A soul in its rightful place is a soul that is freed from the clutches of the world, and enslaved by Christ, instead.
We are His Property, made for His purposes.
He's loaned us each a body. He's rented to us our gifts, our talents, our passions, our desires, our dreams, our ambitions, and everything that makes us who we are. They started with Him. Now, we get to choose whether or not they end with Him.
As Believers, we can get pretty hung up on ourselves. Sometimes our ministries turn into our idols. Sometimes our talents turn into our trophies. We look at all "we've done" and sit back in satisfaction, staring at the work of our hands. We are so quickly trapped by the delusion that WE have contributed to the Kingdom of Heaven, when the truth of the matter is that God is sovereign over it all. Here's how Paul saw it:
1 Corinthians 2:5-9 - After all, Who is Apollos? Who is Paul? We are only God's servants through whom you believed the Good News. Each of us did the work the Lord gave us. I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow. It's not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What's important is that God makes the seed grow. The one who plants and the one who waters work together with the same purpose. And both will be rewarded for their own hard work. For we are God's workers. And you are God's field. You are God's building.
Isn't it interesting? Paul, the man hand-picked by God to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles, literally says that it is NOT him who is important to the ministry. Paul, the man who wrote around 8-13 of the books of our New Testament and established churches all throughout the land, gives ALL the credit to God. He says that his work, on its own, does nothing. Anything he accomplishes, he accomplishes it because God allows him. Paul, a man who deserved bragging rights if anyone ever did, did the exact opposite. He called himself the worst of sinners. He called himself the least of the apostles.
His successes were God's successes. His victories belonged to the Lord because HE, Himself, belonged to the Lord. His progress was brought about by God, and God, alone. It's not important who does the planting. It's not important who does the watering. Or the feeding. Or the teaching. Or the giving. Or the building. Or the chair-stacking. Or the preaching. Or the cleaning. Or the cooking. Or the singing.
What's important is that God makes it grow.
He asks no more than what He's given us,
which is no less than our everything.
I'm finding that the more I recognize my own insignificance, the more I see the work He's doing. The more I acknowledge my utter lack of control, the more I can see His unfailing Sovereignty. And the more I see His Sovereignty, the more I see how He works all things together for good. And the more I see how He works all things together so perfectly, the more I want to let Him work out every detail of my life! All these things I cling to so tightly, all things things I clutch so near to me, they are all better off in His hands.
When we hold onto this life too tightly, we rob ourselves of the abundant living that comes by faith. The more we keep ourselves in "control," the less joy we get to experience through a life lived in trust and abandon.
Whatever we may have, it all belongs to Him. We can assert control temporarily. We can plan our lives out to the Nth degree and make sure that we always know what's around the bend... Or we could surrender it all, entirely.
It's scary to do. It's terrifying.
But I don't know of any instance where surrendering to God turned out badly.