It was not until the middle of my life that I wondered exactly what was meant by the biblical phrase, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.” It is not surprising that this, of all the parables in the Bible, should have drawn my interest. And no, it is not because I have any particular passion about taxes, though I understand their legality is the driving question of the story. Rather it was the gold coin, and Jesus’ aforementioned relationship to it, that so interested me. The parable reminds me of the Native American’s confusion over the European concept of land ownership: The land is the land. How can you possibly own something you can’t pick up and carry with you? Yet it is simply a matter of degrees. A coin can fall out of your pocket, and now you don’t own it anymore.
When I was seventeen, Diane, my first long-term girlfriend, went away to college. Ours had been a stormy, yearlong relationship, and while I missed the comfort of her companionship, I did not miss those storms. She had given me only one gift in our year together: a white tuxedo shirt that had belonged to Benny, a lounge singer who had been her mother’s boyfriend until he made a pass at Diane.
One October afternoon I was home sick from school and doing some laundry. On this day, I was washing only one article of clothing—that tuxedo shirt. It was my favorite shirt, and not merely because Diane had given it to me. I felt it gave me an appropriately sophisticated look my velour shirts simply couldn’t achieve. It was also my only white shirt, and I liked to keep it clean.
On this day I trudged down to the basement, lifted the washing machine’s lid to move the shirt to the dryer—and froze. Somehow this washing machine, which had been reliably and obediently washing my clothes my entire life, had devoured my tuxedo shirt, having entangled it so thoroughly in the agitator that only a complete dismemberment could free it.
I held this now worthless rag in my hands, and screamed. I was alone in the house and so I could scream as loudly as I wished, and on this afternoon I wished to scream very loudly. I carried it like a dead child out of the basement and continued my lament. I told my empty house that what had happened was unfair. I told the house that my shirt was gone forever. I was surprised by the magnitude of my despair over a shirt, and yet I carried on, feeling as if some cork had finally been pulled from my throat.
Eventually the storm passed, and I threw the shirt away. I felt much better, and the next time I saw Diane I broke up with her. I like to make light of myself when I tell this story, but the truth is I can still feel that strange betrayal I perceived that day. Why, it’s as if you can’t depend on one single thing. Let Caesar have it all. You may hold a book in your hand, but its story lives everywhere.
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