Libraries always stamp their books. Somewhere on the pages of any library book you will find the name of the library where it belongs. This serves as a reminder to those dilatory members (among whom I include myself) who indefinitely delay the return of some (probably unread) book. There it is, sitting on your desk or on your nightstand, staring at you, reminding you that “I belong to the Library of ______, and I am overdue.” In addition to pricking your conscience — it is a matter of justice after all — you are also heaping late fees upon yourself. You will not be released from this guilt “until you have paid the last penny” (Matt 5:26). It is better not to wait.
In our Gospel this weekend, Jesus is asked whether it is “lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar.” Jesus answers this question with a question. Asking for a coin, he then inquires “whose image is this and whose inscription?” Of course, it is Caesar’s. The answer then is simple: “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” This is a famous line in the Gospel. It is often invoked to discuss the Christian’s legitimate role in politics; finding balance in serving the state, while at the same time not denying God what is owed to him. But what is owed to God?
Like a library that stamps its books, so God has stamped us. In the first pages of the Bible we learn that we are made in God’s image (Gen 1:26-27). His image is stamped upon the human heart and mind. Like a library that expects its books returned, so God expects us to return to him: “you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut 6:5). When we don’t return a book, our conscience is unsettled and we stack up late-fees. When our hearts turn away from God, there is deep disturbance in the soul, and like late fees, we acquire some debt. It’s best never to delay repentance, but to return to him immediately.
We belong to God. Like a library’s name printed on a book, or the likeness of Caesar on a coin, God has pressed his image upon us. Through our devotion, our prayer, our observance of the commandments, we give to God what is God’s. A library book, having benefitted some reader, happily returns to where it belongs. Similarly, we strive to do some good in the world, but we return home by turning our hearts back to God. By loving God above all, we give him what we owe him: ourselves.