“The Question of What Belongs to God”

Kurt Jacobson
5 min readOct 22, 2023

October 22, 2023

Matthew 22: 15–22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. ***

Imagine you are faced with grieving parents whose young child has died in a seemingly random and tragic accident. Which is more comforting, to assert that this is somehow in God’s hands or to indicate that their child had slipped through a crack of fate?

The longer we live, the more we encounter tragedies, sorrows and unanswerable questions. The world of certainty, of black and white fades to gray. When this is true, belief in a God who orchestrates and controls all things is increasingly difficult to embrace. Could it be that we then find peace in a God whose power does not seek to control all things but is unlimited to redeem?

This may sound like a rhetorical game. How wide is God’s providence? Does it include darkness and woe? How deep can the suffering go before we squirm at the idea that the tragedies, madness and unsubscribed accidents are in God’s hands?

The Old Testament reading today from Isaiah 45:1–7 (see below) has a concise statement of God’s providence: “I form light and create darkness, I make confusion and create woe; I the Lord do all these things. (VS. 7) Isaiah is asking: Whom would you rather have in charge of even the dark realities of the real world: gods created by human hands and culture, or the God who loves you and gives to you in whatever way it takes to set you free?

In the book “Learning to Walk in the Dark.” Barbara Brown Taylor[i] opens with a verse from Isaiah 45:3 “I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord.”

Taylor finds value in exploring loss and the unknowns in life rather than running from them. Learning to walk in the darkness of life the author asserts, uncovers “a deeper reverence for the cloud of unknowing, a greater ability to abide in God’s absence, and . . . a fresh baptism in the truth that loss is the way of life.”

In the loss and unknowns it is another thing to search for God’s prints on the tragedies, accidents and madness of this world. What about the violence that pierces human flesh which has been vividly demonstrated in the past two weeks? Acts so dark that the word evil comes to mind.

Into this blurry and cloudy picture of God’s mysterious providence, Jesus’ words in Matthew 22 offer some relief, yet without neatly resolving the matter. This providence does not divide the world into boxes marked “God’s” and “not God’s.”

But the parable reminds us that not everything on this good earth is of equal interest to God. The coin bears the image of Caesar; thus it belongs to Caesar. Let him have those lifeless coins, Jesus says.

But that which bears God’s image — human beings of every tribe and tongue — belong to God. The value of the coin is diminished; the value of every human life is enriched.

This parable and the Old Testament reading teach us to tread carefully when speaking of God’s domain. Yet we are not left speechless. Jesus’ words order our lives not by marking off segments of the world as outside God’s purview, but by teaching us that everything we do or create — even our very manner of being — is rightly oriented toward God.

What belongs to God? In the face of evil and violence, I am not ready to say everything. But each and every human life? Yes, we belong to God, whether we are dirt-poor or powerful dictators. We are ultimately in the palm of God’s hand.

And while we walk in the darkness of loss and unknowing, we hold firmly to the God of endless and sacrificial love whose image we bear.

[i] Brown Taylor, B. (2014). Learning to Walk in the Dark. HarperOne.


1) Palazzo Barberini “The Triumphs of Divine Providence” — his painting consumes over 400 square meters of decorated fresco, which was created by the Italian painter Pietro da Cortona. The project was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII (Maffeo Barberini) in 1632, and finished by Cortona in 1639. From celilingsineurope.com

2) “Secret Things” MarkLawrenceGallery.com The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law. Deuteronomy 29:29


Isaiah 45: 1–7

45Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him — and the gates shall not be closed: I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.

For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.

I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things.



Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.