An Image of Love
A sermon on Matthew 22:15-22
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here.]
The mid-week Bible study we are doing this Fall is all about the need to understand the context of scripture in order to get the most out of the stories and teachings of the Bible.
I think it is important to intentionally and directly talk about the differences between 1st Century customs, ideas, culture, and language versus our own, in order to prevent the kind of misinterpretation that can result when we assume that the way we read a given passage through our own cultural lens is the way it was originally intended.
But I am less worried about that danger with today’s gospel.
It’s not just that this is probably a somewhat familiar story for those in church circles.
It’s that the dynamics of the story are actually familiar… in that they transcend cultural differences.
We can all recognize the scheming plan to catch an opponent in a catch-22 question where either option sets them up for critique.
We can all feel that instinctive clenching in our gut when someone talks about a tax that we resent having to pay.
We may even feel some innate sympathy with the unstated assumption that loyalty to God and obedience to government stand in tension with one another.
Even the central image in the scene is probably familiar, right? The Roman coin used to pay the tax.
If you are willing, close your eyes and try to picture it in your minds eye: the coin with a picture of Ceasar’s face. Can you see it?
Show of hands:
How many of you pictured a face in profile, with a clean-cut chin and strong Roman nose?
What about the relatively short-cropped hair, with a noticeable curl to it?
And the crown of laurel leaves?
Two thousand years later, in a different country, on a different continent, with a different monetary system, probably most of us never having handled a Roman coin in our lives… but we still know what it looks like.
And that was the point, when the emperor had his face stamped on the coins that people around the empire handled on a daily basis…
Well, the point was not for us to have that image engraved in our imaginations, but that was his goal for all of the people around his large and diverse empire.
The point was recognition.
The ubiquitous familiarity of one image, and the way that image communicated and reinforced a centralized power.
The emperor’s face on the empire’s money was not just an ego trip; it was calculated propaganda.
It was a day-to-day reminder that the individual differences of all of the different conquered nations in the Roman Empire were all subject to the singular authority of one man… and no subject of the empire could buy or sell without that reminder.
That’s the reason that the Pharisee’s question for Jesus about whether or not to pay the tax was such powerful trap.
In fact, I can imagine them feeling a little jolt of glee when he asked them to produce the coin.
The visual would make it all the easier to drive home their challenge: holding up the graven image of a locally-despised emperor, reminding the gathered crowd of the resentment they all felt…
Knowing that the people would expect Jesus to approve that resentment, affirm that the emperor’s claims were an affront to God…
AND knowing that if he did that, if he called out the emperor’s blasphemous claims to absolute power… Jesus would be guilty of a treasonous offense that the leaders could take to the Roman authorities to have him executed.
Of course, Jesus saw the trap, and turned it around on them.
He used the image on the coin as a reminder of a different image… the image of God in which they themselves was made.
Jesus’s response to give the emperor that things that are the emperor’s and give God the things that are God’s had a very clear subtext:
Let the Emperor have the money that he made in his own likeness (and that really shouldn’t have such a claim on your loyalty anyway); You are made in God’s likeness, so what God wants from you is not your money, but yourself.
It’s a clever and effective response to the intended trap… a response that points out the shallowness of a theology that imagines any human emperor could be a rival to the God of the Universe.
But it’s even more than that.
It’s a lesson that transcends time and place and can teach us, just as it did Jesus’s original audience, something far more important than a question about taxes:
Jesus was teaching about what it means to be made in God’s image.
And what it means to be made in God’s image stands in direct contrast to the static image stamped on that Roman coin, because being made in God’s image looks wildly and beautifully diverse.
I had a unique chance to reflect on the diversity of “the image of God” this week.
As I mentioned last Sunday, I spent the second half of this week on a school camping trip with my younger son and approximately 200 other 8th graders.
There are a few things that most 8th graders share in common (like the serious need for deodorant), but the thing that struck me the most about this large group of kids whose ages all fell within one 12-month range was how wildly different they were from each other.
The fact that my family lives in a very racially and ethnically diverse district was just one example of this variation.
Another was their physical development: some of the kids still looked like they could be in grade school, while others would not have looked out of place on a college campus.
Then there were personality contrasts: some were too shy to even participate in the group games, while others were loud and confident and clearly eager to be the center of attention.
They had different interests: some wanting to try all the adrenaline-pumping, harness-requiring activities, while others opted for nature walks, and boating, and art.
A few disturbed kids, sadly, sought out opportunities to harass and bully other students; while one of the sweet students in my cabin seemed to get no greater delight than when they were cheering for someone else’s accomplishments.
There were students who were neurodiverse, and gender diverse, and students with special dietary needs, and students who needed one-on-one aids, and students who didn’t belong to any specific distinguishing category but were just uniquely themselves.
And every one of those 8th-graders, along with the staff, teachers, and parent chaperones, was beautifully, differently, made in God’s image.
What is more, even in our incredible variety we were just a small microcosm of the vast diversity of human life on which God has placed God’s image.
There has been indescribably more variety over the course of human history, and geographical location, and cultural shifts… and only an infinitesimal portion of these examples of God’s image are the figures whose faces ever get engraved on coins.
Caesar tried to emphasize and consolidate his power by proliferating ONE image on the coins that spread throughout his empire.
He wanted to set himself apart and above, uniting all of the diverse people within the bounds of his empire in their common subjugation to his power.
But God made humanity in God’s image and then made us all different, because God’s goal was not the consolidation power.
According to the biblical legends, God gave up being an overpowering God after the flood.
God’s agenda is not to subjugate and remind us of our dependence.
God does not seek our conformity.
God made us each in God’s creative image and then set us free to express that creativity in infinite ways… because God’s goal is not to control us. God’s goal is to love us… and in doing so to teach us how to love each other.
Love is a LOT more complicated than power.
I know. I just spent three days with 200 8th-graders!
There were times when it was necessary for the teachers, and staff, and parent chaperones to rather insistently suppress some of the wild creativity of the precious children made in the image of God.
But the trip would have been meaningless if the only point were to assert the power of the adults in the group. Power for power’s sake is always meaningless.
But love is always meaningful.
Love that celebrates our diversity; and sees each person’s uniqueness; a celebrates the true essence of the image of God not just in the way that we express it, but in the way that those different from us express it as well.
And I believe that kind of love is what Jesus means – in every time and place - when he calls us to give to God the things that are God’s.
Thanks be to God. Amen.