Do you know what one of my least favorite chores is? Folding laundry.
I’ve heard some people talk about practicing mindfulness as they so carefully and attentively fold their towels but I’m sorry, I am not one of them. If I could find a machine that would fold clothes for me, I’d pay all the money in the world for it and gladly devote half my house to it, if it took up that much space.
And do you know what the worst part is? Matching socks. (Can I get an “Amen” here?).
Especially athletic socks–they all look alike, and so you’ve got to determine which ones are Ian’s, which ones are mine, and which ones are Oliver’s. (Okay, Oliver’s are pretty distinctive, but their small size just makes them easier to lose and harder to fold.) Maybe Ian and I should resort to what we all did when we went to summer camp growing up and put our names on our socks in color-coded permanent markers.
Would that make it easier?
I know I’m exaggerating a little bit, but it can be a tedious task, trying to sort things out, figuring out what belongs to whom, especially when it comes to the sorting out, as Jesus seems to do, of what belongs to the state and what belongs to the Church, which our country has wrestled with since its beginning and which it sounds like Jesus is addressing in his statement about giving to the emperor.
He tells the Herodians and the Pharisees that there’s one pile labeled “Things that are the Emperor’s” and another one “Things that are God’s.”
It’s his solution to their question of whether or not it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor.That’s the Roman emperor and the Herodians supported him. Remember, the Roman empire is huge at this time, covering most of the land surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, including Israel. If Jesus were to say “no,” the Herodians could accuse him of treason. If he were to “yes,” the Pharisees, who represent the crowd mentality, would begin calling for an opposition.
But because Jesus is clever, he gives them an answer that, at least temporarily satisfies them, but that also makes them–and us–think. Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s and to God what is God’s. But, like the task of sorting socks, how do you know which is which? Apparently the way to tell the difference, not unlike at school or summer camp is by looking to see who’s put their name on it. You label things that are yours. If the coins are the things that are the emperors because they bear the emperor’s image, it leaves us asking: What, exactly, are the things that are God’s?” What things bears God’s image?
Well, if you guessing that they are not things but people, then you’re right. I recently showed a picture of Oliver to a friend of mine, to which she responded, “made in God’s image.” And she’s right. But it’s not just Oliver. It’s you and it’s me and it’s all humanity, for way back in Genesis we were created in God’s image. We all bear the image of God. We belong to God. We’re reminded of this, of course, by that cross-shaped stamp on our forehead that God gives us at baptism. God has claimed us, and will not let us go, and will not forget us, or lose us. That is one significant way we are different from socks. While socks go missing or eaten by the mysterious sock monster, God never loses track of us.
Several months ago, I pulled into the parking lot of the grocery store and just as I was getting out of the car, a little girl climbed out the car next to me. She was crying, apparently very scared. “Do you know where my mom is?” she sobbed through her tears. Apparently the girl had fallen asleep in the car and when she woke up, the car was parked and her mom was not there. Although I had a pretty good feeling her mom was in the store, she was very upset, and so I took her by the hand and we went to customer service counter where the manager paged her mom. Sure enough, there she was, fully aware that her daughter had fallen asleep and allowing her to rest while she did her grocery shopping.
Though we may sometimes feel lost in this world, because we fall into the “Things that are God’s pile,” God always knows where we are. We can’t fall through the cracks of God’s grace because there are no cracks in that grace. We can’t be “just a number” or “just a statistic” because we are named. We can’t get confused with anyone else because God’s counts the hairs on our head, because God knew us, even before we existed.
But belonging to God also means living and working under God’s umbrella, and because it is an umbrella of grace, it means that even the things that are the emperor’s (or, that belong to the government in our case today) succumb to such grace, or should. And here’s where the rubber often meets the road or, if you want to use the football analogy, the knee hits the ground. When the things that belong to the emperor are not used as if they ultimately belonged to God, that is, to promote peace and justice, we have a responsibility to bring those things back under God’s grace. For is there really anything that doesn’t belong to God?
Here’s where it’s tough–living according in the land of the emperor but belonging to God. And If you never feel this tension, then I’d like to talk to you about it because I cannot escape it.
I feel it, for example, when football players take a knee, questioning whether or not there is liberty and justice for all. I feel it when I pay my taxes, wondering if, but also praying that, those tax dollars are used in a way that benefits the “least of these” whom Jesus valued.
I feel it when I walk into a restroom knowing full well that for some people it is a hotly contested freedom these days.
I feel it when I hear about immigration and refugees, food stamps and healthcare.
I feel it when I hear of the delayed response to Puerto Rico following the hurricane.
I feel this tension precisely because I belong to God, and because belonging to God encompasses everything I do and has implications for the world. Because we belong to God and we are so precious in God’s sight we naturally question whether the way we use our resources reflects a God who cares abundantly for all that God has made.
“Give to the emperor what is the emperor’s and to God what is God’s.” These are not instructions that mean you have to give everything to the government, nor do get you out of paying your taxes. (Sorry folks.) But if, as you’re trying to sort it all out, it starts to look the same–if those two piles start to blend together–it’s probably because God is doing God’s work through you. It’s probably because you have come to believe and trust that you belong, first and foremost, to God. You–YOU!–bear God’s image and that image–that sense of belonging–changes everything.
We need not worry when the things that are the emperor’s and the things that are God’s seem to morph into one–but only when they morph into what more closely resembles the kingdom of God’s justice. If it’s going the other way, then we’ve got some serious work to do. But if the arc of the universe bends towards justice, as Dr. King rightfully suggested years ago, if we do act as if everything belongs to God, we look for the kingdom among us, and we pray that it come in its entirety on earth as it is in heaven.