This is one of those gospel passages that probably should start reading groups. I recommend praying about it all through this week. Perhaps we could use the Ignatian approach to prayer and place ourselves in the scene. When we do this, a number of background factors become much more vivid.
For the last few weeks and this week, we have been hearing Jesus talking in the Temple. So, the largest context for all of this is what it means to be in the presence of God, what it means to worship. This is the background for Jesus asking to see the coin they are talking about, the coin that describes Caesar as god and therefore claims to be in the image of God, a coin and an image that probably should not be in the Temple, but one which definitely betrays the intentions of those seeking to claim the legal high-ground.
More than that, though, we can never forget that the Pharisees and Herodians are looking to kill Jesus. Whatever they say, whatever they claim they are about, they are trying to use either religious law or civil law to kill an innocent man. This is the point of the conversation. This is not some witty banter. This is not some clever word game. What we are listening to has the highest of stakes. And Jesus knows this. He knows that they are looking for any opportunity. Likewise, remember: Jesus too is looking for any opportunity. He is desperate to call them all back to God. The highest of stakes eternally.
Perhaps then this Sunday’s gospel might be asking us to consider our own words. What value do we place on our words? More broadly, what is the currency of our civil language at the moment? Is it real or is it counterfeit? There is a great line in the movie Top Gun: your ego is writing cheques your body can’t cash. Perhaps for too long we have taken for granted that truth and good will must guarantee our words. That without these, without a deep commitment to these: our civil society cannot function, that peace becomes impossible because parties cannot meet and talk. Perhaps we have maxed out the credit card and now the bill is coming due? Perhaps spin is taking its toll on our trust in leaders, and that is why our politics, local and international, seems to be missing the mark.
I mentioned at the outset that, in the end, this gospel boils down to worship. Jesus says to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. We are in the image of God. We must render ourselves to God. We must offer every part of ourselves to God. So, perhaps this week, we might think of the offering we make with our conversations, the words we choose, the tone we use, when we choose to speak or when we choose to be silent and most importantly, what our words say about the one to whom we are speaking.
All of these moments, all of these choices help us understand who we are worshipping. Do we revere the truth? Do my words bear the hallmark of the sacred? Jesus says elsewhere say yes when you mean yes and no when you mean no, and that anything else comes from the devil. Who am I worshipping?
A useful thought experiment might be the following. Whomever I am speaking with, are my words in tune with the reality of the other person’s eternal destiny? Now, of course I don’t mean that every conversation must be slow and ponderous, always talking about the end of the world or the contours of the Trinity (but not a bad thing if a few times). But what I mean is: if a passerby were told what we believed, would it fit with what he or she had heard from us, or would it jar? Would an audience be able to reverse engineer the kingdom of God from how we encounter and speak with each other?
In a few moments time, then, when we offer ourselves on the altar, may our prayer be twofold. May the Holy Spirit burn away anything in our speech that does not come from God. And may God elevate our speech that we truly do speak the Word of God, the Word of God that will never pass away, the Word of God that is our rock and our shelter. May we speak the Word of God in our lives so that our brothers and sisters might know true peace that the world cannot give.