“Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
Hypocrite is one of those words that many people use and use incorrectly. Jesus was the first person to use it as a criticism. In modern use, it has come to describe a person whose actions don’t match their stated beliefs. An obese cardiologist? Hypocrite! Someone who claims to love the environment but drives a gas guzzler? Hypocrite! Family values politicians who are unfaithful to their spouse? Hypocrites! When actions don’t match words we all get upset—and rightfully so. We all want a world where we can take people at face value. What we commonly call hypocrisy undermines trust. But I think we commonly misidentify this disparity between word and deed.
If we are honest, each of us is in some way guilty of what we say differing from what we do. We might tell our kids to put down the phone or tablet while engrossed in our own device. Or we urge others to drive more carefully while we drive with distractions. We know what is best for us and do something less. We opt for the extra donut over the apple (or butter coffee), the nap over the brisk walk, impatience over the kind word, or one more episode on Netflix over prayer and scripture. But this doesn’t make us hypocrites in the sense that Jesus used the word. These examples and many more are really instances of concupiscence and weakness as a result of the Fall.
In Jesus’ time, “hypocrite” was the Greek word for a stage actor who wore a mask. When Jesus called someone a hypocrite he was implying that they were playing a role, wearing a mask. Hypocrites were people more concerned with their image than anything else. Their aim was not to be righteous but to appear righteous and gain the praise of the world. In this Sunday’s Gospel, it is the idea of image that really stands out.
The hypocrites come to Jesus with a trick question. They approach him with false praise for his teaching and wisdom, even laying it on thick. Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not? Jesus disappoints them with a better answer than they could have expected. “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” “Caesar’s” “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” If the gold coins are Caesar’s because they bear his image, then how do I know what belongs to God? What bears His image? We learned what bears God’s image in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible. We do. We belong to God.
To repay to God what belongs to God we have to give Him our whole self. Repaying God means giving him glory and honor. It means giving Him our time, talent and treasure. The Pharisees and Herodians wanted a debate that would end in Jesus saying something they could use to condemn him. What they got instead was a simple and clear teaching—take off your masks. Stop pretending to be something you are not. Remember that the only image that matters is not the one you craft for public approval, but the Imago Dei—the image of God. We are commanded to shine like lights in a dark world. While our ideals and actions might not always agree, we can begin to shine by removing our masks and letting the world see Whose image and inscription we bear.