The air is terrible today — full of ash and chemicals from the nearby fires. My eyes are red and puffy, and my breathing is labored. Nothing would be more welcome than a little, fresh breeze, the smallest of winds. Even if it came for just a moment and was gone, it would lift my spirits.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ famous reply to the Pharisees who wanted to herd him into a dangerous political corner is just such a breath of clean air. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
I remember when I was young my mother would quote this passage as she imperiously directed us kids to complete Saturday house cleaning chores. For her it meant that there were just some things that needed to be done for the good of the family and for appearances. They might not mean a whole lot, might not be particularly godly, but they were necessary.
Sitting with the passage again this morning, I see something a bit differently. Jesus is holding up a Roman coin. He is a member of an oppressed people, living in an occupied country. It is likely that by the time Matthew penned his Gospel the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. Jesus is not talking about whether it’s a good idea to be rebellious and oust the oppressors. Nor is he talking about splitting allegiance between government and God. He is talking about seeing differently.
It’s like a tiny breath of fresh air, sudden and unexpected in the oppressive environment in which he and his people lived. What belongs to Caesar is the image on his coins, the uniforms of his soldiers — human-created things like that. What belongs to God is the blood and breath of all living creatures, Roman and Jewish alike — and all creation from the dust in the road to the galaxies in their courses. You and I belong to God. We are made by God for a purpose unique to us. God dwells in our hearts and guides us with as much profound care, longing and hope as God expends on all creation.
Is it any wonder that Jesus talked with each person he met, from Jewish elders to Roman soldiers and common thieves, as though they were souls yearning for God and able to choose God in any moment? Is it any wonder that he didn’t want to lose a single Roman ear? He saw the beautiful, mysterious light that dwells in each of our hearts, and he could not help but reach for it with love and with hope.
Breathe in that breath of clean air. Our hearts know the longing to see the fire at the center of each living thing blossom with radiance. We long for all things to be well. And each of us has a particular, God-given way in which we might aid in that happening. This is the way we bring the kingdom of God to earth.