Symbols are a powerful tool, but what do they really indicate? They can represent pride or patriotism; they can represent power, fear, love, friendship, ownership, or even abstract ideas. Jesus was presented a coin, which is a kind of symbol. They are first and foremost tools that allow us to function within the social structure we have created for ourselves and the same was true when the Pharisees showed Jesus the coin with the emperor’s head on it. The Denarius represented the power and might of the Roman Empire, it was a constant reminder of who was in charge and the oppression the people of Palestine endured under Roman rule. Of course, coins have a different meaning for us, they represent the power of the government that created them, they represent the people that are governed, they represent status, they represent the power of the person who holds it and depending on your circumstances they represent oppression. Coins only have the meaning that we ascribe to them and the meaning we give them greatly depends circumstance. Take a quarter for example. To me a quarter is something that is only good for parking meters and throwing in a change jar; but to someone else, a quarter might represent one-fourth of the money needed to purchase their only meal for the day; a hamburger from the dollar menu at McDonald’s. Of course, symbols are not always as tangible or physical as a coin. In my philosophy class we were wrestling with the Pythagorean Theorem this week; which, in case you have not dealt with geometry in a while, is a2 + b2 = c2 and is the equation used to determine the length of an unknown side in a right triangle. We were of course not solving math equations in philosophy class but talking about what the equation is meant to represent, which is, the perfect right triangle. We talked about how we will never encounter a perfect right triangle because it is impossible for us to create it and likely does not occur naturally. So a2 + b2 = c2 is yet another symbol that we use to convey an abstract meaning.
I sincerely doubt Jesus gave this much thought to the issue of symbols when he told the Pharisees that they should “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”, although anything is possible with God, so maybe he did. As usual I think that our modern minds do not immediately see the lesson in this passage, because we are naturally drawn to focus on tangible things, as opposed to abstract things. We are immediately drawn to the actions of the Pharisees and how Jesus interacts with them and we naturally assume that the coin is supposed to represent some big idea that we do not immediately understand. The coin belongs to the emperor, just as the quarter belongs to the US government, but when Jesus says, “give to God the things that are God’s”, what is he talking about? Can we assume that as the coin is a symbol of the empire, that whatever Jesus is referring to is also a symbol? In a word, yes! What he is referring to is us. Just as a coin bares the image of its creators, so do we bare the image of God. In Genesis Chapter 1 verse 26-27 we read “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.’ So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Since we were created in the image of God that means that we are marked by God and thus we belong to God. We do not belong to our nations; we do not belong to our social status; we do not belong to our parents or to our partners; we do not belong to our professions, or our towns or even to ourselves; we belong to God. And when we say that we belong to God we do not mean that God literally owns us as if we are a car; God gave us the gift of free will, which not only sets us apart from the rest of creation, but it makes our relationship with God much more meaningful because when we do have a relationship with God it is through choice and not because we were forced. While we could talk all day about what belonging to God means, I want to shift our focus back to the concept of symbols.
If you recall I said that coins are powerful symbols because they represent the power of the government that created them, the people that are governed, status, and power. Well, what if we use the same logic in relation to our creation? We were created by God in their image, which might mean that we look like God, but I don’t actually think that is what is meant by that at all; instead, I think it means that we have the ability to love as God loves. Coins are stamped with images related to their creators and because of that we accept them for the tools that they are and utilize them accordingly. Sometimes those uses are good and sometimes they are oppressive. We are also stamped by our creator, we are stamped with the ability to form relationships that go far beyond a means to survival and that ability can sometimes be used for good and sometimes it can be used for oppression. So, when Jesus says “give to God the things that are God’s” he is saying give yourself to God because we belong to God. Each and everyone of us is a living breathing symbol of God. Our lives reflect our relationship with our creator, just like the use of a nation’s currency reflects the values of the entire society. When we, collectively, use our currency to build weapons that are then used to destroy the things that other people have built we are using those coins to oppress others. When we use our currency to develop life saving vaccines and then distribute them to the world, we are using those coins to protect, in either case the spending of the coins is a symbolic representation of the choices we are making. The same is true of ourselves, when we choose to focus on human things, such as money, status, and pride we are taking something away from God. We are denying our relationship to God, we are denying that we represent God and because of that, God is not able to utilize us as a tool to reach others. As coins have two sides, so do our lives, on one side we are a part of human society and with that comes responsibilities, distractions, and stress; and on the other side we are beings created to love and have been given the task of using that Love, God’s Love, to tend creation, to keep it safe, to be the symbolic tools through which God can shine. It is impossible to separate ourselves from human society and God has not asked us to do so. Instead Jesus has taught us to give to society the things that belong to it, give it our labor and our sweat, but do so in a way that demonstrates the love we have for God; give it our money, but in a way that reflects God’s love for creation; and when society kicks you in the teeth, give yourself to God, let Jesus absorb the pain and the anguish in your life so that you can once again be the symbolic tool God needs you to be.