“Be human in this most inhuman of ages; guard the image of humanity for it is the image of God.”
Kris Rocke Tacoma, WA
In this week’s text the religious leaders are trying to trap Jesus with a question about whether Jews should pay taxes to Caesar. But this isn’t really a question about taxes. It’s more sinister. They are trying to inflame rivalry between Jesus and Caesar. If Jesus says “yes” to their question, then he’s bowing to Caesar and forfeits any claim to be the messiah. If he says “no,” then Jesus is being a seditious freedom fighter, punishable by death.
Jesus doesn’t take the bait. In good rabbinic form he answers their question with a question.
“‘Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose image is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.'”
The key word in this passage is “image.” The Greek word is, “eikon,” from which we get the word icon.
This calls to mind the second commandment that prohibits making images. The only image Judaism allowed was the image of God that we bear in our flesh, “Let us make humanity in our image” (Gen. 1:26).
It’s important to note that the image of Caesar was ubiquitous in the Roman Empire. It could be seen everywhere: in the market, city square, and on every imaginable object for both public and private use. We can’t overstate how offensive this was to Israel. Walsh and Keesmaat, in Colossians Remixed, point out that Caesar’s image had become part of the “daily furnishings, permeating the visual landscape and therefore the imaginations of the subjects of the empire.” This includes the Jewish people who could not escape the image of Caesar pressing in on them, colonizing, not only their land, but also their imaginations.
So what is Jesus getting at when he says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”?
He is saying something quite practical. Whatever bears the image of Caesar belongs to Caesar. If a coin bears his image, (or anything else for that matter), then by all means, it’s his. Give it to him. Caesar can have his stuff. By the same token, if you bear the image of God, then you belong to God. And who bears the image of God?
Everyone! Everything! All humanity. All creation. Even Caesar, and his image on the coin.
But there’s more…
We not only belong to the one whose image we bear, we become like the images we bear. Herein lies the challenge. A distorted or false image of God yields a distorted or false person. Perhaps this is why Jesus calls the Pharisees “hypocrites” in this passage. The word literally means actors. The Pharisees are acting out a false image of God – one that looks an awful lot like the Caesar who is oppressing them, one that is tribal and violent, who favors a small subset of humanity over and against all others, especially the most vulnerable.
The irony is rich. The false ones are standing before the real deal, the very icon of God in flesh. It is they who are pretending. It is they who are the actors, acting out the false image of God engraved on their hearts.
C.S. Lewis says it beautifully. Jesus is the great iconoclast who gracefully shatters the images that hold us hostage.
“Images of the holy, easily become holy images, sacrosanct.
My image of God is not a divine image. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great Iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence?
The incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.”
Ah…the non-violent shattering caused by grace, made real in Christ. I’d give a thousand lifetimes for that shattering.
Kris rocke Executive Director / Street Psalms Seattle, WA