Try this little exercise: go to your room, gaze at the stuff you have inside, and examine what is yours. In your mind, attach a tag or label to all that you think you own. You may even use a color-coding scheme to rank your belongings from the most important to the least. Then ask yourself how these things came to your possession. Some you may have bought, some given to you. All these you have kept for yourself or for others, all these you have taken to be your own.
You might even have some money locked in some drawer or tucked away in some secret corner. Label that too in your mind and ask how much of that cash is yours, what portion of it you have earned or deserved, what portion you have received as gift.
In some sense, what you just did is what accountants do. Accountants make a living helping us to count things that are ours and those that are not. In neat rows, they lay out our belongings (“assets”), mark those that are not ours and meant to be for others (“liabilities”), and subtract the latter from the former to give us an idea of what on balance is ours (“equity”).
The Gospel story today invites us to do an accounting of a related sort. Jesus is confronted with a trick question by a motley band of bitter enemies, composed of those who are pro-Rome (the Herodians) and anti-Rome (the Pharisees). It is a political question they ask: should we pay taxes to Caesar of Rome, the colonial occupier? It is a sinister question because there is no way out. Seeing through their malice, Jesus asks to be shown a Roman coin with the image of Caesar in it. His answer to their trap: give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.
Cryptic answer, yes, but a great escape nonetheless. The tone suggests that this is more than just a matter of paying tribute to rulers or taxes for the common good, of separating church and state, God and government. The cryptic answer is code for know-first-what-is yours-and-what–is-God’s.
So, truly what is yours?
It helps to ask that question again and again not only because it is asked in blue ribbon committees or whenever you fill out your SALNs or go to get a loan or visa. I believe that if there is to be any auditing at the very end of days, that might very well be one of the questions (not at all sinister) that could be asked of us upon entrance to Eden.
At the Jesuit Residence, especially in the company of my aging and infirm brothers, I get to see how we live that question in the various ways we face diminishment. Amid these daily and progressive doses of divestment, I get to ask whether what mattered before still remains, whether what remains now is what matters.
And only after a struggle do I get to see that what remains is all that matters.
We are blest to have Ignatius Loyola pass on to us a bold prayer that dares us to ponder and act on our identity and dearest possessions:
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding, and my entire will,
all I have and call my own.
You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.
What remains after all the liberty and memory and understanding and will have been taken from you? What remains after all that is you and that is yours have been taken from you? Nothing, save only this love and this grace. What stays is all that matters.
Tonight, try this other exercise. Go out of your room, get under the evening sky and gaze at the heavens. In your heart, confess to yourself all the things that you hold and own, all that you are. The stars are there to give you a sense of place and proportion, to give context to your confession. For even if you are made of stardust, surely the stars are not yours.
We are not what we have in our rooms, not our possessions, not even what we can call our own. We are what has been given to us. We are what we return to the One who has given everything to us, enough love and grace included.
[by Fr. Jet Villarin, SJ]
About Jett Villarin, SJ
Fr. Jett is a Filipino Jesuit priest and scientist, who is the university president of Ateneo de Manila University. He received the National Outstanding Young Scientist award in 2000, and the Outstanding Book Award for “Disturbing Climate” in 2002. He is also an active member of several local and international environment and climate committees, such as the United Nations’ Consultative Group of Experts for Developing Countries, and the Inter-Agency Committee on Climate Change, among others.