There is a story told in the Gospel of Matthew that one day people wishing to ensnare Jesus in difficulties came to ask him a question: ‘Is it right to pay the Roman tax?’ The trap was that the tax imposed by the occupying imperial forces was very unpopular amongst the Jews, and saying that it was right to pay it would have turned them against the Master, whereas saying it was wrong to pay it would perhaps have put him in trouble with the authorities. What is more, the questioners began by praising the wisdom of Jesus, making it difficult for him to avoid answering. According to the Gospel, Jesus saw through the plan, and began his well-known reply by denouncing the questioners as hypocrites.
Of the innumerable shortcomings that humans can demonstrate, hypocrisy is one that we seldom recognise–in ourselves. We are very quick to do spot it in others, but we rarely stop to think, “Am I being hypocritical in this situation?” We may be aware of other lapses, but brush them off as unimportant, and even joke about them. Hypocrisy, on the other hand, is scarcely acknowledged, and is not a behaviour we want to wear. It means to present oneself as being better than one is, usually in a moral sense, and comes from an ancient Greek term meaning to play a part like an actor. Perhaps the reason it is overlooked is that we ourselves would like to believe the story we are presenting. On the inner path, where it is essential to keep a close watch over oneself, hopefully the habitual (self)deception of hypocrisy should begin to diminish.
When Jesus steps over the trap, we feel a smug satisfaction that the hypocrites have been defeated, but what else do we learn from the story? The Master said, give to Caesar what belongs to him, and give to God what belongs to Him–but what is that? A pious person might say it means to fulfil all one’s religious duties, to give one’s energy and attention to the correct observance of the religious law. No doubt there can be a benefit from this, but in this interpretation there is a division between the things of this world, like the coin bearing the image of Caesar, and ‘godly’ or ‘spiritual’ things. Someone with a more philosophical view might say, how can there be a division? God is the almighty Creator and Sustainer; He made all that there is with His own Hand. Is there anything in the world that does not belong to Him?
In that case, the injunction of Jesus could be understood to mean, give all to the Father: our goods, our efforts, our speech, our thoughts and feelings, our body – all. And what is ‘giving’? Simply put, to relinquish our claim, as we do in the words of the external zikar, “This is not my body, this is the temple of God.”
When Jesus was confronted with the question, he asked whose face was on the coin. It was Caesar’s face that identified the denarius, so we could ask, what is it that bears the face of God? He is beyond all form, so His countenance is only revealed when we give up our hold on the transitory, illusory world of ‘things’ and reach the state of non-being. As Mahmud Shabistari says, it is only in the mirror of non-being that Reality may be reflected. The sun shines pours its radiance down upon the pool, but it is only when the pool becomes still that the source of light can be clearly seen.