Archbishop Francesco Follo, courtesy of the Holy See Mission , UNESCO

Archbishop Francesco Follo, courtesy of the Holy See Mission , UNESCO

Archbishop Follo: We are the Coin with the Image of God

With the wish to understand that being ‘coins’ with the image of God means having imprinted on us the love of God to share

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Roman Rite – XXIX Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A – October 18, 2020.

Is 45, 1.4-6; Ps 96; 1 Thes 1, 1-5b; Mt 22, 15 to 21


Ambrosian Rite – Feast of the Lord

Bar 3.24 to 38, or Rev 1:10; 21.2-5; Ps 86; 2 Tim 2, 19-22; Mt 22:15 -217


1) Caesar and God.

Today’s Gospel contains Christ’s famous sentence: “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” This phrase is repeated in context and out of context when talking about the relationship between Christianity, the institutions, and political power.

To provide an evangelic meditation not limited to a short lesson on Church-State relations, I think it important to explain the context in which this phrase is uttered by Jesus.

The Pharisees and the Herodians want to trap Jesus even if they have different views of Israel’s Roman occupation at the time of the Jesus’ earthly life. When a prophet’s words become uncomfortable to hear, he must be proven to be in error and be shown to be contradicting himself. The question is: “Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?

If to the question about the lawfulness of paying taxes to Rome, Jesus had answered “no”, the Jews would have denounced him to the Romans as Rome’s enemy and a rebel. If he had answered “yes”, they would have had a good excuse to denounce him as a traitor of his own people.

Jesus does not fall into the trap; instead, he answers in a way unforeseen by the Pharisees and the Herodians who had posed an ambiguous question. He takes another route by inviting his interlocutors to get the coin that pays the census tax. They display the coin with the image of Tiberius Caesar. At that point, He first asks whether the image is Caesar’s, then He makes the statement that I have quoted at the beginning.

The tax to Caesar must be paid because the image on the coin is his; but every man carries within himself another image, that of God, and therefore it is to him, and to him alone, that everyone is indebted for his own existence. Taking the cue from the fact that Jesus refers to the image of the Emperor imprinted on the tax coin, the Fathers of the Church interpreted this passage in the light of the fundamental concept of man as the image of God contained in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis.

Saint Augustine has used this reference several times in his homilies: “If Caesar claims his own image imprinted on the coin – he says -, will God not demand from man the divine image carved in him?” (En. In Ps., Psalm 94, 2). And again: “As money is given back to Caesar, so the soul enlightened and impressed by the light of his face is given back to God … Christ in fact dwells in the inner man” (Ibid, Psalm 4, 8).

The reference to the image of Caesar engraved in the coin says that it is right to feel fully entitled – with rights and duties – to be citizens of the State; but symbolically it makes us think of the other image that is imprinted in every man: the image of God. He is the Lord of everything, and we, who were created “in his image” belong first of all to him. From the question posed to him by the Pharisees, Jesus derives for us a more radical and vital question, a question that we can ask ourselves: who do I belong to? To the family, the city, the friends, the school, work, politics, the state? Yes, sure. But first of all – Jesus reminds us – you belong to God. This is the fundamental belonging. It is He who has given you all that you are and have. Therefore, day by day, we can and must live our life in the re-cognition of our fundamental belonging and in the re-knowledge of the heart towards our Father who creates each of us unique and unrepeatable, but always according to the image of his beloved Son, Jesus. It is a wonderful mystery.

The Christian is called to commit himself concretely in the human and social realities without opposing “God” to “Caesar”. Opposing God to Caesar would be a fundamentalist attitude. The Christian is called to commit himself concretely in the earthly realities but illuminating them with the light that comes from God. The primary entrustment to God and the hope in him do not involve an escape from reality, but rather an industrious giving back to God what belongs to him.  This is the reason why the believer looks to the future reality, that of God, to live the earthly life to the full and to respond with courage to its challenges.

Therefore, Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and the Herodians is rich in human and spiritual substance and cannot be reduced to the political sphere alone. The Church, therefore, does not restricts itself to reminding men of the right distinction between the sphere of authority of Caesar and that of God, and between the political and religious spheres. The mission of the Church, like that of Christ, is essentially to speak of God, to remember his sovereignty, to remind everyone, especially the Christians who have lost their identity, the right of God to what belongs to him, that is, our life. .

In short, the teaching that we can draw from this Gospel is to reaffirm the distinction between State and Church and to affirm that it is essential to know how to distinguish between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. In any case the primacy of every reality is always tied to God.

The teachings to be derived from this Gospel are, usually and quite correctly, the confirmation of the distinction between Church and State and  the assertion that it is essential to be able to distinguish between what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. Anyway, in any situation the primacy of all reality is always connected with God.

 2) God and his image.

Let us now try to better understand Christ’s answer “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” These words are usually interpreted in the context of the distinction between Church and State. It is certainly legitimate to do so. However, this phrase pushes us farther and recalls a deeper truth about man. If the coin is imprinted with the image of Caesar, we are “imprinted” with the image of God, or rather, we are made in the image and likeness of God.

To Jesus’ question about whose portrait is on the coin and what is the title that identifies the image, the Jews answer “Caesar’s.” Then Jesus replies, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” The answer confuses the listeners. In any case, the answer makes us ask ourselves what belongs to Caesar and what to God. Jesus’ answer makes clear what belongs to Caesar: only the coin from the mint of Rome on which the “image” of the emperor is engraved. This, therefore, must be returned to the owner. The Gospel then goes further and says to give to God what is God’s. But what is God’s? The term “image” used by Jesus for the coin brings us back to the biblical phrase placed at the very beginning of the Bible: “God created man in His own image; in the image of God he created him” (Gn 1: 27). This means that today, as in the days of Jesus’ earthly life, what began with the creation of man remains true. At the beginning of the history of the world Adam and Eve are the result of an act of God’s love, they are made ​​in His image and likeness, and their lives and their relationship with the Creator coincided.

Already in the fourth century, an anonymous author wrote: “The image of God is not impressed on gold, but on humanity. Caesar’s coin is gold, God’s coin is humanity…. Therefore, give your riches to Caesar but keep for God the unique innocence of your conscience where God is contemplated…. Caesar, in fact, asked that his image be on every coin, but God chose man, whom he created to reflect his glory” (Anonymous, Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 42).  St. Augustine has used this reference several times in his homilies: “If Caesar claims his image imprinted on the coin – he says – would not God require from man the divine image sculpted in him?” (See Exp. on the Psalms, Psalm 94: 2). And again: ” In like manner as Caesar exacts from you the impression of his image, so also does God: that as the tribute money is rendered to him, so should the soul to God, illumined and stamped with the light of His countenance….   Christ in fact, dwells in the inner man (Ibidem, Psalm 4,8)

Jesus’ indication, therefore, cannot be reduced as applicable only to the political sphere. The Church’s task in this case is not limited to reminding men of the proper distinction between Caesar’s sphere of authority and God’s, between the political and the religious sphere. The task of the Church, which continues the mission of Jesus, is essentially to speak of God and to remember the sovereignty of the Father, reminding everyone, especially Christians who have lost their identity, the right of God on what belongs to Him, namely, our life that in Him becomes holy and true. Our truth, like that of all human beings, is that we are first and foremost children of God. We belong to God. This is the foundation of freedom and human dignity, which must be defended, maintained, and returned to everyone. It is a question of bringing out evermore clearly the image of God that has been shaped and impressed in the depths of every human being and that makes him holy.

In fact, there is a “holiness” in every human person which is not of his or her own merit, but that is a gift because each of us is created in God’s image. St. Irenaeus wrote that the Word and the Spirit are the two hands with which man was formed at the beginning and with which he is still shaped today in the image of God.

Always, but especially at the beginning of this life of holiness, every believer has no other duty but the docility to the action of the Spirit. How can we recognize the Holy Spirit’s action and make room for it in our lives? By keeping alive in us the holy desire for God and by living perseverance through our asking for Christ in every moment of our lives. Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity said: “How serious is every moment! It is paid in the Blood of Christ! “Every moment costs God because the price of time is God: we receive Him in every instant; we must receive Him. Unfortunately, in every moment we can also choose to close ourselves to Him and to reject Him. We refuse Him if we do not surrender ourselves to this grace. We reject Him and we close ourselves to Him if we are not obedient to Him, if we, his disciples, do not listen or do not welcome Him in us.

As disciples of Jesus we must work so that in every man shines the icon (image) of God that is imprinted in our heart.

We must not only worship God present in our soul and realize that we are the living temple of God. We must also realize that all that we have received from Him must be continuously moved by Him, used by Him and operated by Him. We must not only be the temple of God but also be the instrument of His actions because God does not dwell in us statically. He does not dwell in us solely because we adore Him. He dwells in us for Him to act through us and specially to transform us and make us like Him of whom we are the image.

We are invited to ask through prayer and action to be made ​​according to the image of the Son of God. Often this image is marred, hurt, humiliated, and crushed due to our misconduct or other people’s work. Marring ourselves or others we mar the image of God that is within us; we disfigure the image that the “two creative hands” of God have made ​​. Today, Jesus exhorts us to “give back” to God what belongs to Him: everything and everyone, ourselves together with all humanity and creation.

We must not forget that, compared to all other creatures, man is the only one that God has willed for himself (Gaudium et Spes, 12; Catechism of the Catholic Church 356). Man is not a thing among things, but a being capable of self-awareness and free decision. Man is a person capable of a relationship with God and with other people. This is the image-likeness to God: we are not a thing incorporated in the laws of the universe (think of the evolution leading to the presence of humans that  scientists say happened about 3 billion years ago), but we have consciousness, freedom and we can interpret our being in the world by giving it a meaning[1].

Thus, man appears as the culmination of creation, the point at which the creation becomes conscious and capable of free response to God and able to have relationships[2].

An Order of people living this spousal communion with God and fellowship with men is that of Consecrated Virgins in the world.

Through their dedication, these women testify to the Church and to the world that the human being is a reflection of God and is called to be, in the visible world, a spokesman for the glory of God and a word of his Glory.

The virgins show and make public the perfect virginity of their own Mother, the Church, and the sanctity of its intimate union with Christ. These women also offer a wonderful sign of the flourishing holiness and of the spiritual fruitfulness typical of the Church. In this regard, the expressions of St. Cyprian are wonderful: “Virginity is the flower of the ecclesiastical seed, the grace and ornament of spiritual endowment, a joyous disposition, the wholesome and uncorrupted work of praise and honor, God’s image answering to the holiness of the Lord, the more illustrious portion of Christ’s flock. The glorious fruitfulness of Mother Church rejoices by their means, and in them abundantly flourishes; and in proportion as a copious virginity is added to her number, so much the more it increases the  joy of the Mother.”(St.Cyprian, De habitu virginum, 3: PL 4, 443).

To this are wisely inspired the expressions of the Celebrant in the rite of the consecration of the Virgins and the prayers to the Lord:” So that there may be more sublime souls who, disdaining the pleasures of the flesh in marriage, seek its hidden meaning and, instead of imitating what is done in marriage, love what in it is symbolized. “(Roman Pontifical Consecration of Virgins).


Patristic Reading

St. John Chrysostom (344 – 407)

Homily LXX. Matthew Chapter 22, Verse 15

“Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle Him in His talk.”

Then. When? When most of all they ought to have been moved to compunction, when they should have been amazed at His love to man, when they should have feared the things to come, when from the past they ought to have believed touching the future also. For indeed the things that had been said cried aloud in actual fulfillment I mean, that publicans and harlots believed, and prophets and righteous men were slain, and from these things they ought not to have gainsaid touching their own destruction, but even to believe and to be sobered.

But nevertheless not even so do their wicked acts cease, but travail and proceed further. And forasmuch as they could not lay hands. on Him (for they feared the multitude), they took another way with the intention of bringing Him into danger, and making Him guilty of crimes against the state.

For “they sent out unto Him their disciples with the Herodians saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man; for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto C’sar or not?1

For they were now tributaries, their state having passed under the rule of the Romans. Forasmuch then as they saw that Theudas and Judas2 with their companies for this cause were put to death, as having prepared for a revolt, they were minded to bring Him too by these words into such a suspicion. Therefore they sent both their own disciples, and Herod’s soldiers, digging, as they thought, a precipice on either side, and in every direction setting the snare, so that, whatever He should say, they might lay hold of it; and if He should answer in favor of the Herodians, themselves might find fault with Him, but if in their favor, the others should accuse Him. And yet He had given the didrachmas,3 but they knew not that.

And in either way indeed they expected to lay hold of Him; but they desired rather that He should say something against the Herodians. Wherefore they send their disciples also to urge. Him thereto by their presence, that they might deliver Him to the governor as an usurper. For this Luke also intimates and shows, by saying, that they asked also in the presence of the multitude, so that the testimony should be the stronger.

But the result was altogether opposite; for in a larger body of spectators they afforded the demonstration of their folly.

And see their flattery, and their hidden craft. “We know,” their words are, “that Thou art true.” How said ye then, “He is a deceiver,” and “deceiveth the people,” and “hath a devil,” and “is not of God?”4 how a little while before did ye devise to slay Him?

But they are at everything, whatsoever their craft against Him may suggest. For since, when a little before they had said in self will, “By what authority doest Thou these things?”5 they did not meet with an answer to the question, they look to puff Him up by their flattery, and to persuade Him to say something against the established laws, and opposed to the prevailing government.

Wherefore also they testify the truth unto Him, confessing what was really so, nevertheless, not with an upright mind, nor willingly; and add thereto, saying, “Thou carest not for any man.” See how plainly they are desiring to urge Him to these sayings, that would make Him both offend Herod, and incur the suspicion of being an usurper, as standing up against the laws, so that they might punish Him, as a mover of sedition, and an usurper. For in saying, “Thou carest not for any man,” and, “Thou regardest not the person of man,” they were hinting at Herod and Caesar, “Tell us therefore, what thinkest Thou?” Now ye honor Him, and esteem Him a Teacher, having despised and insulted Him oftentimes, when He was discoursing of the things that concern your salvation.Whence also they are become confederates.

And see their craftiness. They say not, Tell us what is good, what is expedient, what is lawful? but, “What thinkest Thou?” So much did they look to this one object, to betray Him, and to set Him at enmity with the rulers. And Mark declaring this, and more plainly discovering their self-will, and their murderous disposition, affirms them to have said, “Shall we give C’sar tribute, or shall we not give?”6 So that they were breathing anger, and travailing with a plot against Him, yet they feigned respect.

What then saith He? “Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites?” Seest thou how He talks with them with more than usual severity? For since their wickedness was now complete and manifest, He cuts the deeper, first confounding and silencing them, by publishing their secret thoughts, and making it manifest to all with what kind of intent they are coming unto Him.

And these things He did, repulsing their wickedness, so that they might not suffer hurt in attempting the same things again. And yet their words were full of much respect, for they both called Him Master, and bore witness to His truth, and that He was no respecter of persons; but being God, He was deceived by none of these things. Wherefore they also ought to have conjectured, that the rebuke was not the result of conjecture, but a sign of His knowing their secret thoughts.

  1. He stopped not, however, at the rebuke, although it was enough merely to have convicted them of their purpose, and to have put them to shame for their wickedness; but He stoppetn not at this, but in another way closes their mouths; for, “Shew me,” saith He, “the tribute money.” And when they had shown it, as He ever doth, by their tongue He brings out the decision, and causes them to decide, that it is lawful; which was a clear and plain victory. So that. when He asks, not from ignorance doth He ask, but because it is His will to cause them to be bound by their own answers. For when, on being asked, “Whose is the image?” they said, “C’sar’s;” He saith, “Render unto C’sar the things that are C’sar’s.”7 For this is not to give but to render, and this He shows both by the image, and by the superscription.

Then that they might not say, Thou art subjecting us to men, He added, “And unto God the things that are God’s.” For it is possible both to fulfill to men their claims and to give unto God the things that are due to God from us. Wherefore Paul also saith, “Render unto all their dues; tribute to whom tribute is due, custom to whom custom, fear to whom fear.”8

But thou, when thou hearest, “Render unto C’sar the things which are Ct, “Ren’sar’s” know that He is speaking only of those things, which are no detriment to godliness; since if it be any such thing as this, such a thing is no longer C’sar’s tribute, but the devil’s.

When they heard these things, their mouths were stopped, and they “marvelled” at His wisdom. Ought they not then to have believed, ought they not to have been amazed. For indeed, He gave them proof of His Godhead, by revealing the secrets of their hearts, and with gentleness did He silence them.

[1] In the second biblical narration of the creation (Gen 2,4a-25) man ( adam) is taken out from dust (adamah) in which God blows his breath of life(neshamah). What makes a difference between us and the other creatures is the spirit, the ability to be free and to give a meaning to the fact that we are something.

[2] To be able to have relationships is not an appendix to human nature but is the fullest expression of being a person.

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Archbishop Francesco Follo

Monsignor Francesco Follo è osservatore permanente della Santa Sede presso l'UNESCO a Parigi.

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