What do we want out of life? What is most important to us? And what things might we be able to live without?
From time to time, such questions pop into our hearts and minds, and the answers will change at different stages of our lives.
Today I look at how our answers are affected when, with Grace, we shift from the worship of a false idol to the worship of the God who is Love.
Today’s Gospel reading is set during Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem. Religious teachers who accept the Roman occupation try to trick Jesus into saying something scandalous. They ask him if it is lawful to pay taxes to the Roman Empire.
Seeing the question as a trick, Jesus takes a Roman coin and notes that it has an image of Caesar on it. He then says “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.”
The cutting nature of Jesus’ response hinges on the status of Caesar. Caesar is the family name of the first Roman Emperor, Julius Caesar, and of his successors. By the time of the gospel stories, Julius’ grandson Tiberius is the Emperor.
Tiberius’ title Caesar not only acknowledges him as the ruler of the Empire but also as a god. The state religion of Rome involved worship of the gods of Olympus, which the Romans had adopted from Greece, along with the worship of Caesar.
Jesus’ response exposes this cult. He makes a distinction between the supposed god Caesar and the true god, which for his Jewish listeners would have been YHWH, the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. By hinting at Caesar’s divine status, Jesus exposes his critics as idolaters.
But the cutting nature of Jesus’ response goes deeper than this, I think. When Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday he is hailed as a Christ or King by his followers. By giving Jesus this title, his followers express hope that Jesus would overthrow Caesar. They also think of Jesus as a new incarnation of the god YHWH.
Good Friday reveals that worship of Jesus as a new tribal king and god is also a form of idolatry. His crucifixion makes it clear there will never be a new Jewish warrior king like David. Nor will there ever be another tribal god like YHWH.
But on Easter when, with Grace, his followers recognize the Risen Christ alive in their hearts, they leave tribe behind to enter a universal sovereignty and divinity. They enter a Love that is beyond ego, tribe, or nation.
None of us can avoid idolatry; and any of our enthusiasms can develop into it – as when a young hockey player idolizes Connor McDavid; or a young musician idolizes Billie Eilish; or a young citizen idolizes his nation.
But the ups and downs of life always lead to disillusionment; and sometimes, with Grace, we arise from the pain and humiliation of disillusionment closer to our Source, which is Love.
Today’s pandemic crisis confronts us with the question of what we value. Are some of the things we used to value idols, and if so, how we might live more in line with sacred values?
Idolatry is based in the small desires and fears of our egos. In contrast, Love reveals our unity with humanity, life, and the entire cosmos. Assigning ultimate value to Love doesn’t mean we renounce all material wealth. As Charles Eisenstein say in the short passage we heard today, in a sacred economy we might have fewer material goods, but enjoy a life with more beauty, community, and fulfillment.
A model for an individual who shifts away from idolatry is an addict who embraces sobriety. What form might such a shift take in us this spring?
Today’s crises also reveal serious problems in our society – as in how food is produced, in how frail elders are treated, and in how government leaders struggle to respond quickly and wisely to prevent the spread of disease.
A model for an empire that shifts away from idolatry is when it offers former colonies independence. What form might such a shift take in Canada or elsewhere this spring?
Two days after Jesus replied to his critics with his quip about Roman coins, the movement he led faced an ultimate crisis when he was killed. But a few days after the crucifixion, Jesus’ friends found a path beyond idolatry with the appearance of the Risen Christ in their hearts.
May the revelations of today’s crises help us to accept the Grace to become the people of Love we desire, out of both our deepest hurts and our highest joys.
May it be so. Amen.