“The Restoration of God’s Image By Repaying to God What Is God’s”
Homily for the Concluding Mass for the Together in Holiness Conference
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year “A”
Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, Belmont; October 21, 2023
In the Gospel readings for these Sundays of the Church year we hear about the growing tension between Jesus and the Pharisees in this section of St. Matthew’s Gospel. The last two Sundays we heard parables that are clearly implicating the Pharisees in their blindness to God’s plan, and now we are seeing a direct confrontation: the Pharisees are setting up a trap for Jesus to try to trip him up and have something with which to accuse him. We will hear another one of these attempts in the Gospel reading next week.
Today we hear about the plan to trap Jesus with the trick question about paying the census tax to Caesar. Paying this tax was a prerequisite for living peacefully as a subject of the Roman Empire and exercising the rights in accordance with one’s status in that Empire. The tax consisted of a denarius, which was a full day’s pay for a laborer.
Remember, here we are in the land that God promised Abraham and his descendants, where His people had built up a kingdom that was now destroyed. And now they are being ruled by the occupying Roman forces. For people with a religious outlook such as the Pharisees’, this presents a controversial dilemma. They are the Chosen People of God, in the land bequeathed to them from their God, the one, true God, and now they are subject to the rule of Gentiles. That would seem unbecoming to their status at the People of God, but, on the other hand, not to pay the tax would incur Roman retribution, which could be quite brutal. So notice how the question is posed: whether or not it is lawful to pay the census tax, not whether or not they are bound to do so. That is, is it in keeping with the Mosaic Law to do so, or would paying the tax constitute a violation of it?
The Pharisees had something of an uneasy alliance with the Roman authorities. They were opposed to being ruled by them, but unlike the nationalists, they were cautious and tried not to upset the Romans. The nationalists were the rebellious ones who wanted to overthrow Roman rule, and while the Pharisees agreed with them in theory they did not join in on their rebellion. On the other side of the spectrum was the group we hear named in this Gospel passage, the Herodians. This was a Jewish sect that favored Caesar, with some of them even apparently seeing him as the fulfillment of the promised Messiah. They clearly would have no problem with the local Jewish people paying taxes to Caesar. So notice here how the Pharisees team up with their opponents in this debate in order to trap Jesus with this trick question.
Notice, too, how Jesus phrases the question: “whose image” is on the coin? The word used in the text here is the Greek word for icon. This has a very specific meaning in the Christian religion, especially in the Christian East. An icon is a sacred image which not only depicts a saint or mystery of the faith, but mediates the very presence of the holy. The fact that Caesar’s image is on the coin states that it belongs to him in the first place, which is why paying the tax carries the sense of repaying to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, as the translation has it in today’s reading.
And of course, our Lord adds that we must repay to God what belongs to God. If the Roman coin has the image of Caesar on it, what is God’s coin that has the image of God on it? We read that at the very beginning of the Bible: God created the man and woman in His image. As the ancient Church father St. Hilary put it, the denarius is Caesar’s coin and man is God’s coin, because man bears the image of God at the creation. Of course, the Book of Genesis does not end there. Two chapters later we read about the fall of our first parents, and so that image is tarnished, imperfect. God, though, immediately comes up with a plan to restore that image in us.
So while the Pharisees thought it unbecoming for them, as the Chosen People of God, to pay tributes to occupying Gentile rulers, our Lord’s response is that what is truly unbecoming is not acting in accordance with the dignity of being people of God: they must be people truly of God, godly people. The image of God in which God created us is continually repaired, polished and restored the more we allow God’s grace to work its effects in us. And this is possible even for those who are outside of the people God has chosen for His own. We see that example in the king Cyrus in our first reading. He is the King of Persia, who ordered the rebuilding of God’s Temple in Jerusalem. We hear in this passage from the prophet Isaiah that God even refers to him as His “anointed”: the title reserved for the king was to descend from David and re-establish the Kingdom of Israel, the Messiah! A powerful lesson that what matters in God’s eyes is not one’s birthright, but to be righteous.
Restoration of the Image
Now, when we go deeper into the text of Genesis we can understand better what that plan of God is for restoring us to perfect communion with Himself. Let us hear once again that foundational passage in Genesis 1:27: “God created mankind in His image; in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them.” God created them in His image, male and female. If God wanted his human creation to be an image of Himself, it couldn’t be any other way.
Think about it: God is a communion of Persons, the Most Holy Trinity. We know this from Revelation; everything the Father is and has He gives to the Son, and the Son returns to the Father, and their mutual love sends forth the Holy Spirit Who draws us into the communion of God’s life and love. God’s human creation, then, has to reflect this: the man and woman come together in a complete, comprehensive, conjugal union that is oriented toward the generation of new life – that is, the communion of life and love that is the covenant of marriage. It is a union which is truly for life: that is, permanent, for the entirety of one’s life; and, for the purpose of generating new life. This is how it images God’s love: faithful, life-giving and eternal.
We are witnessing all around us in our time the most serious violations of human dignity, and now in that very land which God promised to Abraham and his descendants: heinous crimes beyond imagining, perpetrated against innocent civilians who are being explicitly targeted. Please heed the imploring of Psalm 122 and “pray for the peace of Jerusalem,” praying ever more earnestly. Of all of these atrocities, though, not to be ranked among the least in the West is the moral depravity that destroys marriage and family life, marriage even in its most basic understanding. This is an evil that lies at an even deeper level, as it destroys the very image of God from the face of the earth.
It is the covenant of marriage as God has created it that reflects His image and is the sign of the communion He seeks with us: a comprehensive, perfecting, eternal communion in which the two become perfectly one while each retains their own unique, individual identity. This is the meaning of the sacred vows of marriage. We don’t hear that language too much anymore, but marriage vows are, yes, sacred. I wish to express my thanks to all of you who participated in the “Together in Holiness” conference today for your commitment in living those sacred vows, in keeping with the dignity with which God has created you and has gifted you with your vocation of marriage.
In commenting on the Gospel passage for today’s Mass, St. Augustine speaks about it from the standpoint of, precisely, rendering vows. He says: “Let Caesar’s image be rendered to Caesar, God’s image to God. This is what the Psalmist commands when he says, Make and keep vows to the Lord your God. May all around him bring gifts to the one to be feared.”
Let us bring our gifts to the God Whom we love and fear, rendering back to Him His own image by living in keeping with the dignity of that image in which He created us, that the truth, beauty and goodness of His Kingdom may expand on earth, and we may be brought into the communion of its perfection in heaven.