Sunday, October 22, 2023

Who Bears God's Image?

 Matthew 22:15-22

Proper 24 / Year A

If Jesus and the religious leaders had been playing a game of chess today’s reading would begin with the religious leaders moving a piece and saying “check.”  They pose their question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?”  The Jewish people despised Rome’s poll tax so if he answers “yes” Jesus risks having turn against him the folks who just the day before hailed his arrival into Jerusalem with palm branches and shouts of “hosanna”.  If he answers “no” Jesus will face the wrath of the Roman government.  The religious authorities believe they have him just where they want him. 

Then Jesus asks them to show him the coin used to pay the tax.  What does it say to you that Jesus did not have a coin in his possession?  He forces the religious authorities to produce one.  It bears the image of the emperor who himself claims to be divine.  Faithful Jews would not carry this coin because doing so is a violation of the first two commandments: have no other gods but God and make no graven images.  What does it tell you that the religious authorities are able to put forward a Roman denarius? 

“Whose head is this and whose title?”  The Greek word translated here as ‘head’ is ikon which some versions of the bible render as ‘image’, others as ‘likeness.’  His challengers respond, “It is the emperor.”  “Render unto the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”  And with this answer Jesus claims “check” and “mate.”

In our zoom call last Tuesday we began our time, as we always do, talking about one of the readings for the upcoming Sunday; usually the gospel.  Bishop Susan said she loves to preach on today’s reading and I asked her why.  She said, “If the coin bears the image of the emperor, who bears the image of God?”  This, I think, is a really good question to explore.

It is a central question addressed in the very first story in the bible.  Genesis 1:26 reads, “And God said, let us make man in our own image, in our own likeness.”  So God creates human beings, male and female, in God’s image.  Therefore, one way to answer this question is every person, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or religious persuasion bears the image of God and therefore is infused with dignity and worth.  This truth forms the foundation of all human rights and equality.  Any attempt to build barriers, create divisions, or assert dominance over another person or group is a fundamental rejection of the biblical truth all people bear the image of God. 

I don’t intend to comment every Sunday about the conflict between Israel and Hamas, but today’s reading with its focus on how every human being bears the image of God, has much to say about this crisis.  I read an interesting article this week in which the author argued we should not be pushing people either to side with Israel or with Palestine.  The real division in the middle east is between people who want peace and those who don’t.  My hunch is more want peace than don’t, but, sadly, it only takes a small minority to throw that volatile region into chaos.

Who bears the image of God?  We who confess the to the Christian faith hold Jesus Christ is the perfect image of God.  He is God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.  He proclaims to Philip, “Anyone who has known me has seen the Father” (John 14:8-9).

We who hold to this faith commit ourselves through baptism to live intentionally into the image of God, using Jesus’ words and deeds as our measuring stick.  Think about the promises we have made:

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

To each question we respond, “I will, with God’s help.”  So, not only are we committed to bearing the image of God, we are empowered to do this through the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. 

Render unto the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and unto God the things that are God’s.  Some people take from this we should simply be compliant with our government and do whatever it tells us.  But I think just as the coin bearing the emperor’s image circulates throughout society, we are to circulate God’s image everywhere we go and with whoever we have contact.  Whose image is on you?  In whose likeness are you made?