One of my favorite lines of poetry comes from the last line of Mary Oliver’s poem, “A Summer’s Day.” Oliver writes, “Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
This line hits me like a sucker punch to the gut. The blunt question uncovers a deep, uncomfortable truth that sometimes the life I’m leading is not the life I want to live. I get so distracted striving for that which will not sustain, spending my time and energy chasing affirmation and accolades, financial stability, job security, success, I forget my center, I lose sight of my center, my true desires. It is not that things like financial stability and affirmation are bad in and of themselves. But they don’t always deliver the life I truly desire. Oliver’s blunt question reminds me to return to the center of my being, to remember that all we have is the gift of life, and we are called to live it to the fullest. The line refocuses my attention to that center within me that yearns for communion with God, with others, and with myself.
In today’s gospel, we hear Jesus deliver a similar blow to the Pharisees. Attempting to entrap Jesus, they pose a trick question. Pay the census tax, or not? If Jesus says, “Yes, pay it!” he could be accused of idolatry. If he says “No,” Jesus could put himself at the mercy of Roman law. Jesus does neither. Rather, he turns the question back to the Pharisees. “Show me the coin,” he says. In doing so, he reveals their hypocrisy. There it is, the coin, stamped with Caesar’s image and drawn from the depth of their own pockets.
“Whose image is on this coin?”
“Caesar’s,” they respond.
We can almost see the squirming, the aversion of eyes. And then, here it comes, “Then repay to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what belongs to God.”
Far from an economics lesson or even a lecture on civic duty, this story—along with the other readings for today-- is about our identity, specifically, our identity in God. We belong to God. When we understand the truth of that reality, we see life as gift, precious and wild, meant to be squandered on that which matters: gratitude, service, beauty, truth, mercy, love. Life is not meant to be spent fearfully gathering up trappings our culture claims we need. Life is not to be hoarded, rather it is meant to be poured out.
This story is a familiar riff on the repeated Gospel theme: Jesus comes that we may have life and have it abundantly. Even more so, Jesus comes to show us that we have life and how to live it abundantly. Jesus’ courage comes from his deep abiding faith that he belongs to God. He believes to the depth of his core the words spoken at his baptism: “You are my beloved.” Living out of this reality, Jesus pours himself out, squanders his energy on healing the sick, feeding the hungry, comforting the afflicted, the sorrowful, the forgotten. His single-minded confidence in God’s love even takes him to his death. But it also brings forth Resurrection and new life.
Jesus’ admonition in today’s gospel calls the Pharisees to claim the truth that they too belong to God. He reminds them that their identity is not defined by the coins hidden away in their pockets, but rather by the love of God in their hearts. Jesus compels them to let go of the trappings of idolatry, that which keeps them from spending their lives on what matters.
For those of us in positions of privilege and power, Jesus’s words should cut us to the core. This gospel reveals our own pharisaical tendencies and reminds us that we are not the money in our bank account. We are not our jobs. Our identities run much deeper than our national borders, than our political parties, than our religious affiliations. When we cling to the security that is offered in these dangerous idols, we become be distracted at best, violent at worst. Just as the Pharisees carried Caesar’s image in their pockets, we can become complicit to the very structures of sin we claim to abhor. Letting these idols go frees us to embrace our shared vulnerability and to live out of the confidence that we belong to God.
There is no doubt that this takes immense courage. People who possess this courage resist the idols of power and prestige and economic success. They live out of a place of deep freedom and joy, hope and wisdom. They are prophets in our midst, usually living quite ordinary lives. Like Jesus, they encourage us to empty our pockets of burdensome and harmful idols and fix our attention on the abiding Spirit of Life creatively laboring in and through us. Like Jesus, they assure us that first and foremost we belong to God. Through their courageous witness, they ask us, “Tell me, what will you do with your one wild and precious life?”
Katherine A. Greiner
Katherine A. Greiner is assistant professor of theology at Carroll College in Helena, Montana. She holds a Ph.D. in Theology and Education from Boston College. Her dissertation, “There is a Wideness to God’s University: Exploring and Embodying the Deep Stories, Wisdom, and Contributions of Women Religious in Catholic Higher Education,” focuses on questions concerning Catholic identity, charism, and mission in Catholic colleges and universities founded and sponsored by women Religious congregations. Her research interests include Christian spirituality in contemporary society and higher education, lay ministry in the Catholic Church, American Catholicism, and feminist and contextual theologies. She is a regular contributor to the blog Daily Theology.