Worthless but Redeemable

Only two years ago, U.S. customs and border officials seized counterfeit goods worth around $1.26 billion. By 2016 counterfeiting is expected to be a $1.7 trillion industry.

Human beings have thrived on phoniness since Adam and Eve donned fig leaves to hide their humanity from each other. Their sin taught them shame. All they wanted was to be God’s equals—and look what it got them. But they couldn’t hide who they were from the One who created them. This Sunday’s readings are all about that contrast between who we are and who we think we are.

In our first reading (is 45:1, 4-6), Isaiah tells us how God had to remind even Cyrus—one of those He chose as an instrument to carry out His will—where he got his mojo.

“I have called you by your name,” Isaiah quotes our Creator, “giving you a title, though you knew me not. I am the LORD and there is no other, there is no God besides me. It is I who arm you, though you know me not, so that toward the rising and the setting of the sun people may know that there is none besides me.”

Our original sin isn’t that we take God’s gifts for granted; it’s that we forget they are gifts and therefore we deny the giver. Even members of God’s church, established by Christ and continued by Peter and Paul, have always needed reminders of who and why they were. In our second reading (1 thes 1:1-5b), Paul praises the members of the church of the Thessalonians for their faith and works of love, but he reminds them who chose them to do this work.

“Our gospel did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction,” Paul tells them.

God gave us free will and the freedom to choose between two roles: tabernacle of God or empty shell. If we choose “empty shell,” we compel ourselves to fill that emptiness with a false identity—phony as a $3 bill and just as worthless.

That describes the Pharisees in Sunday’s gospel (mt 22:15-21) who try to build up their own worth by devaluing the teachings of Christ and entrapping him in their own human corruption. By asking him if it is lawful to pay the census tax, they tried forcing Jesus to choose between obeying God and obeying Caesar. But Jesus saw their counterfeit attempt to gain knowledge for what it was: a trap. It gave Jesus the opportunity to perform another miracle by turning that trap of lies into a moment of truth. He asks them whose face is on the currency they use to pay taxes. “Caesar,” they answer.

“Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

What belonged to Caesar were the things of phony value that people with phony values tried to stuff into their empty tabernacles. Even among the Pharisees there were people who believed in what Christ taught but chose to counterfeit themselves—just as Adam and Eve did.

Counterfeiting is still the coin of humanity’s realm. Our currency may say “In God We Trust,” but unless we live that phrase we are no better than the hidden believers among the Pharisees who failed to stand behind Jesus while he was proving his worth. The miracle in that is he still saw value in us.

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