Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99 or 96:1-9 (10-13); 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
What is in an image?
Reading Scripture is part of our faith walk and as such it means that we have to be willing to actively engage in its meaning. When we do engage in the meaning a door opens for us to be greeted by God through the experience of another. It helps us to keep the stories alive and meaningful. These are also times when we must be willing to listen for clues that lead us to an even better understanding of ourselves and of our relationship with God and each other.
The Gospel today opens up discussions about the separation between church and state. At least that is what seems obvious since officials from the church (temple) and state are identified in this account as asking about taxes. This Gospel is also one that recounts an attempt to trap Jesus into saying something that could be identified as a clear-cut crime. There is also something else present in this account that might have caught your attention. Jesus never really answers the question he is asked, and the response he gives has a bit more information in it than he was asked.
Let’s go over the reading again and see if there might be other information we may want to consider. Matthew tells us that the Pharisees and the Herodians have banded together to ask about paying taxes. The Pharisees were the officials of the temple and would not profit from taxes. But the Herodians were state officials and would have something to gain from taxes. So why would they come together to ask Jesus unless the state officials were conspiring with the temple officials to trap Jesus? This particular challenge would result in someone being unhappy no matter what Jesus answered. And Jesus risked being accused of treason if he elected to deny that taxes should be paid to the emperor. Jesus never really answers the question but he adds an important point we may want to consider.
After the officials affirm that Jesus is sincere and teaches in accordance with God’s truth without partiality to anyone, they ask, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” Jesus scolds them for testing him and asks them to show him the coin used for the tax. They give him a denarius. He continues in answering their question with a question. “Whose head is this; and whose title?” They responded that the emperor’s head appeared on the denarius. So, Jesus answered, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
According to other translations of this Gospel, Jesus did not ask whose “head” appears on the coin but rather, “whose image”. But the officials remained on track with their desire to catch Jesus in a treasonous response. They answered that the emperor’s image appears on the coin. They missed completely the possibility that Jesus might have been asking them for a less superficial or obvious answer—particularly since his response included the idea that they should give to God what is God’s. They did not ask him to make that distinction, so why would he have done it?
Since Jesus asked about “image,” let’s think about that a bit. We are made in the image of God. That means everyone is made in the image of God—even the emperor. Might it have been important for them to notice that when Jesus asked them the question? No matter whether we are functioning socially, economically, politically, or religiously we are first and foremost children of God made in God’s image and therefore belong to God.
Now Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy have seen that image of God in the people of Thessalonia. In fact, they are quite moved by their experience of evangelizing the Thessalonians. They are moved and transformed by the experience, are changed and evangelized by Thessalonians. Certainly, this is not the way we usually understand evangelism. It seems safe to say that evangelization usually involves a giver and a taker but in this instance both parties gave and both received. They each saw that the other was made in the image of God and this brought them together as the body of Christ.
This moving experience is documented in Paul’s letter and is one of the earliest records of Christianity. Paul indicates that it is not just the preaching of the Gospel but the power of the Holy Spirit that they shared. Paul and the others may have gone to Thessalonica with the intention of bringing something to them that they did not have before, and the Gospel message may have been exactly that. But what Paul and the others did not expect was that they would encounter God in the midst of the Thessalonians. The Holy Spirit moved them all to be for and to each other a reflection of God.
At the intersection of the Gospel of Matthew and Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians we discover how important it is to remember that we are children of God. When we are aware that we are made in God’s image and that everyone we encounter is made in God’s image we are closer to understanding that Jesus modeled this for us throughout his life. We may also feel less inclined to separate ourselves from each other. It is equally important that we retain our identity as children of God whether we are functioning as members of our household, our workplace, our neighborhood, or our city.
As committed Christians we are also obliged to look into the faces of our neighbors and see God, especially when we are tempted to relegate those neighbors into a category that would put them at odds with us. Imagine how powerfully the Holy Spirit can work with us and through us when we do not separate ourselves from that image. We might experience what the Thessalonians felt and what Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy felt as they evangelized each other.
The Rev. Debbie Royals, Pascua Yaqui from Arizona, is a student at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP) in a concurrent M.Div/MA program. She leads the Four Winds congregation in Sacramento, California, and is active in Native Ministry in the Episcopal Church, including involvement in the work of the Episcopal Council for Indigenous Ministry (ECIM). E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org