People have always remarked that my father and I have the same eyes.
When I was little and my dad and I would play, I remember clearly that I would do that thing that kids sometimes do when they put their little faces very close to an loved one’s, close one eye, and look very closely at the other person’s eye. I would say, “What do you see?” He would respond, “I see my eye! No wait, that’s your eye!”
If you have children or other close family members, you probably have similar stories. We take joy in the “family resemblance.” Even family friends love to remark at how a kid looks just like his grandmother, or how she looks just like her mother did at her age. In the rural South, people most often describe this by using the word “favor,” as in, “he favors his mother.” It doesn’t mean, of course, that a child likes one parent better than the other, but that the child resembles that parent, grandparent, or other relative most closely.
I favor my father.
Another way of saying it is to say that I’m “the spittin’ image of her daddy,” or as my father likes to say, “You look just like me, you know, if I was a girl.”
Today’s Gospel is a tired text that we often hear around election and tax season and maybe even stewardship season. It’s often pulled out any time we have to talk about how we use our money.
The Pharisees send some of their students, along with some Herodians — interpreters don’t quite agree on whether the Herodians were simply Greek Jews or whether they were an active political party — but the point is, the Pharisees sent these guys to trap Jesus.
And a clever trap it is, sort of.
They send these folks to ask Jesus a simple question: essentially, whether it’s a sin to pay taxes.
If Jesus says that people should pay taxes, it’s probably not going to go well with the crowds, and not just because taxes have been moaned and complained about since the dawn of taxation. They weren’t doing the equivalent, you see, of paying state or federal taxes. They were paying for their own occupation by a strong and harsh foreign power: Rome. What’s more, tax collectors were often hated for overcharging people and skimming off the top. The Pharisees also speculated that the very coins used for paying taxes are idolatrous because they have icons of the emperor on them which to them, was a kind of graven image. In other words, if Jesus said, “Yes, pay your taxes,” he was going to be in trouble with the religious leaders and the crowds.
Alternatively, if he encouraged people not to pay their taxes, the Roman authorities would be on him, as we say in the South, like white on rice. One of the constant risks of Jesus’ life and teaching was walking this line between being killed by the Romans for being subversive and being arrested by the religious authorities for being blasphemous.
Jesus sees the trap coming and calls them out for it. But unlike many public figures of our day, he doesn’t dodge the question or change the subject and he only calls them one name instead of several.
Then, like a good teacher, he brings it into concrete terms. He asks them for a coin.
Now, if you’ll remember, the Pharisees were supposed to think carrying these coins was blasphemous, but they produce a coin anyway.
I feel like Matthew left out this line: “And the Lord smirked.”
He says, rhetorically, “Whose image is this?”
Our translation says, “Whose head is this,” but the Greek word translated “head” is most often translated “image” or “likeness” in the New Testament.
“Whose image is this, and whose title?”
They respond, of course, “The emperor’s.”
Then he gives them the line we’re most used to hearing: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
And he once again wiggles out of the trap and amazes everyone.
Jesus: more verbally adept than a politician, but with a spine — a combination that we rarely get in public discourse, whether now or in the past.
Of course, most of us have heard the same tired stewardship sermons on this text about how we should give to God what is God’s with our money. Though I think that’s quite the opposite of Jesus’ point here, I do think this text has something to say about stewardship as we wrap up stewardship month.
You see, I think we can fully take Jesus’ lesson here by either looking in the mirror or taking a hard look at each other.
Whose image is this?
“So God created humankind in God’s own image; in the image of God they were created” (Genesis 1:27).
Give to God what is God’s.
At first, it sounds to me like a hard word: of God saying “I own your butt.” (Though, admittedly, the Holy Spirit has more than once given me that message when I’ve wanted to pull a Jonah and run away and join the circus or something.)
Indeed, Christians have been known to guilt each other by continually reminding ourselves and each other that God demands our lives, and that we’d be ungrateful not to give God everything.
But God’s love, of course, isn’t dependent upon our devotion. We are no less created in God’s image whether we dedicate our whole lives to good or whether we never acknowledge God at all. Our problem, as always, is how quickly we make things about us when the Gospel, of course, is a story about God.
Whose image is this?
When we reframe things to make them about something larger than ourselves, we gain perspective. The Quakers in America were staunchly anti-slavery because they believed, and still believe, that the Divine Light lives within every human soul. Therefore, to own another human being is to own a piece of God, and that should not be done. To abuse another person is to abuse God, and that should not be done.
What if we looked at everyone, including ourselves, and reminded ourselves to ask the question: whose image is this?
The conversation about sexual harassment has picked up again with the Harvey Weinstein revelations. What if all men of faith looked at women and, instead of seeing them as objects, said, “Whose image is this?”
We are all born in the image of God.
Our worth, our autonomy, our free will, are our birthright, and none of us has any right to take that away from another person: to intimidate them, to make them feel afraid, to harass, abuse, hurt, or kill them. These things are sinful.
What’s more, when we look in the mirror, let us wonder: whose image is this? We do belong to God, regardless of our actions, but since this is true, how much more should we care for our bodies and our souls? How much more should we dedicate ourselves — personally, financially, and with our spare time — to spreading this Good News of mutual love and respect rooted in theology?
This, I believe, is a message the world needs: if all are truly sacred, this changes everything, just like it did, and does, for the Quakers.
In short, to follow our construction motif that we’ve been working with all month: we are all built with love, baptized and claimed with joy, made in God’s image. We’re all part of the same family.
Families do indeed marvel at the “family resemblance.” It bonds us to our children and siblings and other relatives by signaling to the deepest parts of our brains, “This one is to be cared for and protected. This one is one of us.”
In a world where our entire being can be consumed by the happenings in the world, let us render to Caesar what is Caesar, and to God what is God’s.
Every person we meet, and all of us, are the spittin’ image of our Father, our Mother, our God — the one who gave us birth and gets us up every morning.
We are all built with love. Amen.