It’s been a few weeks since I started putting this bandage on my forehead. As many of you already know, I’ve been receiving laser treatments to remove my birthmark here. My birthmark the size of a thumb was just so noticeable when I was little. The birthmark is quite visible. So as soon as I was born, my parents began to worry. They were concerned that growing up, my friends would make fun of me about my birthmark, and I would dislike my look. Then, all these would negatively affect my personality and self-esteem. Since there was no such thing like a laser treatment, my parents figured out a simple solution. And it worked out very well for me. The solution was to tell me over and over again that my birthmark is God’s fingerprint! It sounds funny now, but at that time, I took it very seriously. And I really believed it. My mother said that when I was in her womb, God especially chose me and marked me with God’s thumb saying, “Earl, you are mine, and you are very special to me.” I totally bought that story.
Having treatments to remove my birthmark these days, I recalled the story that my parents made for me. But interestingly enough, I don’t think that my parents told me a total lie or a fake story to just make me feel good. It’s because there is a certain measure of truth in that story. As a pastor and a Christian, I believe that I am, and all of us, are created in God’s own image as the Bible testifies. And as God created us, I guess, God might leave God’s fingerprint on us. I also believe that through the Holy Spirit, God always tells us, “You are mine and you are very special to me.” Yes, how important it is to affirm this truth and to realize whose we are. We can say that it’s the ground of Christian faith and life. So I’m thankful that I got to know this truth very early while listening to my parents’ story about my birthmark.
Today’s Gospel reading tells us another good story that leads us to see once more whose we are. Yes, as you may have noticed, today’s story of Jesus revolves around a question asking what belongs to whom. Let us look at the story closely. The Pharisees come together with the Herodians to Jesus in Jerusalem. This is an interesting situation, because these two groups of people really didn’t get along with each other in Jesus’ days. On the one hand, the Pharisees, who were the Jewish religious leaders, did not want to give money to the Romans, the pagans who occupied their land by force and oppressed them. So they opposed to paying taxes to Rome. On the other hand, King Herod and his people, the Herodians, had a great interest in keeping the Roman taxes paid properly, because they wanted to sustain their power with the Roman Empire. Therefore, when the Pharisees and the Herodians come to Jesus together and ask, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not,” they are really throwing Jesus a no way out situation (Matthew 22:17). If Jesus would speak against the tax, the Herodians would go mad and charge him of treason against Rome. And if Jesus would speak in favor of the tax, the Pharisees would publically denounce him as a betrayer of Jewish people. Yes, the Pharisees and the Herodians seem to successfully trap Jesus in a very difficult situation.
But then, Jesus asks for a coin, “Show me the coin used for the tax” (22:19). People bring him a denarius. Look at the picture.
On the coin, there is the image of Caesar Tiberius, the Roman emperor of Jesus days. And the inscription around the image means, “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus” (Ti[berivs] Caesar Divi Avg[vsti] F[ilivs] Avgvstvs). And on the reverse, there is the image of a seated woman. She is Livia, mother of Tiberius, described there as “Pax,” the goddess of peace. And the inscription around her says, “the highest priest (Pontif[ex] Maxim[us]),” one of the many titles that the Roman emperor had. As you can see, the coin in the time of Jesus was not just a coin. It carried the political and religious propaganda of the Roman Empire in people’s everyday life. And it continuously reminded them of who is the legitimate and divine ruler and to whom they should remain loyal.
Showing the coin to the Pharisees and the Herodians, Jesus asks, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answer, “The emperor’s” (22:20-21). Then, Jesus says to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (22:21). With this amazing yet simple conclusion, Jesus draws the people around him into further questions. “Yes, the coin belongs to the Empire anyway, so who cares if we give the emperor back his coin for the tax? But, ‘give back to God the things that are God’s?’ Then, what exactly is God’s that we are supposed to give back to God?” At this point, people might stop and think back on Jesus’ initial reasoning. Jesus leads them to confirm that the coin with the emperor’s image is what belongs to the emperor. According to this, what belongs to God should have God’s image on them. Then, what are those things that have God’s image on them?
The Book of Genesis says, “And God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness… So God created humankind in his Image, in the image of God he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27). Yes, all we are, who created in God’s own image, are God’s. That’s what Jesus wants people to see. “Give coins to the Empire. The emperor claims his divine rule, but what he can get from you is just coins. But remember your Creator. You belong to God. So you shall give your life to God. Give your mind, heart, and soul to God.”
Sisters and brothers in Christ, we are created in God’s own image. This image includes many things. In our heart, we have God-created love and mercy, compassion and kindness, sense of justice and righteousness…all these can be the image of God imprinted in us. These can be the unique fingerprints left in our hearts as God created us. Therefore, to give ourselves to God is to live our life conforming to this image and the likeness of God.
Like the Roman Empire in Jesus’ days, the world tries to impose false images on us and claims our loyalty and our life. And we sometimes find our hearts occupied by those false images and claims, and we consciously and unconsciously dedicate our life to something other than God. However, in this world full of struggles, temptations, and challenges, if there is one simple thought that brings us back to the right relationship with God, that should be about the truth we believe in: we are God’s children born in God’s sacred image, and we are God’s handiwork that have beautiful fingerprints of God. So let us remember whose we are and who we truly are. And let us listen carefully. Through the Holy Spirit, today, God tells each one of us, “You are mine and you are very, very special to me.” May we give to God the things that are God’s always. Amen.