Based around Matthew 22:15-22.
Image. For some people, many people, image is everything – wearing the right clothes, carrying the right accessories, owning the right car or house or possessions, being seen in the right places, appearing successful, having the perfect family or job. All social groups can get drawn into the image trap – young men and women may ask “Am I seen as sufficiently good looking?” or “Do I come across as sufficiently tough or streetwise?”; middle aged people may ask “Do I seem adequately successful?” “Is my home creating the right image?” Even churches can be drawn into the image trap – do we present the right image to be seen as successful in human terms?
People have always been concerned with image – portrait painters used to make people look more like the ideal of the day rather than necessarily portraying them as they truly were. Henry VIII felt deceived by the portrait he was shown of Anne of Cleves which he felt was overly flattering and did not represent the woman he was to marry. Oliver Cromwell insisted that his portraitist paint him “warts and all”, wanting to be seen as he was.
In this age of multi media, of photoshopping and airbrushing, of social media and the constant desire for “likes” or new “friends” – image seems to be more dominant in people’s lives than ever. When the only people you mixed with and compared yourself with were in your local community it was hard to maintain an illusion that was not true as everyone knew each others’ homes and families. But in cyber space, creating the right image seems to dominate. However, always striving after a particular image can lead to all sorts of problems – depression and lack of self-worth if people feel they can’t really live up to the illusion of success they feel they should; debt if people try to buy the image they want but cannot really afford it; or just a sense that “being me” is never enough. Wearing a mask, creating an illusion is tiring and ultimately unsatisfying. Trying to live up to an image that is not really yourself does not bring true happiness.
Image is a the centre of our Gospel reading today – even if it does not immediately appear to be!
Jesus is approached by some Pharisees and Herodians determined to catch him out. They begin by flattering Jesus and then ask their trick question – is it right to pay tax to the Emperor? They are trying to trick Jesus into showing himself either as a bad Jew or a rebel against Rome. Jesus sees through their intentions and replies with his own question: “Whose image is on the coin used for the tax?” “The Emperor’s” is the reply – so Jesus says, “Give to the Emperor what is the Emperor’s and give to God what is God’s”. That seems a neat and simple solution – pay imperial tax in the coin of Rome, obey Roman law in a secular context but maintain your religion and honour God as a separate part of life. Keep religion and politics separate.
But Jesus was not presenting that duality. We could say that Jesus’ question was a trick question as well. Whose image is on the coin? The Pharisees and Herodians could only say, “The Emperor’s” as it was his relief on the coin. But as every person is created in the image of God – it could be said that God’s image was on the coin (in the shape of Emperor) – but Jews were not allowed to make images of God.
If we go back to Genesis Chapter 1 we read: “ God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness. And so God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.” This is central to our understanding of ourselves in God’s Kingdom.
Most weeks we use the Eucharistic prayer that includes the words “For he is your Living Word, through him you have created all things from the beginning and formed us in you own image.”
We are all formed in God’s image – not in the shape of our features, the colour of our skin or hair, our level of intelligence or our physical perfection – but as human beings infused with the life and image of God breathed into us from the dawn of creation. As humans we all bear God’s image.
Thus the coin in our story bears the depiction of the Emperor’s head but therefore also shows a person created in God’s image – as every human is. We cannot separate what is the Emperor’s and what is God’s – we do not live in a dualistic world. Every interaction we have with another human being is an interaction with another person made in God’s image, as we are.
This is not to say that there are not people who act in appalling and evil ways, who cause untold damage, distress and pain and who constantly seem to deny all that is Godly within them – but we believe it is possible for God’s word and God’s love to break in and transform and redeem and restore the centrality and sanctity of his own image. As our hymn “To God be the Glory” says “the vilest offender who truly believes that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”
We are all made in God’s image – not the same, but each unique, different, special – each as valued as every other. We never need to wear a mask or strive to conform to an image from outside – we only need to be ourselves, in the image of God, precious in the sight of God, loved as we are and for whom we are. The only perfection we need to strive after is our own in God’s eyes, and to make the most of our life among others.
Life is not compartmentalised into the “Emperor’s” (secular and political) and God’s (spiritual). God’s image is in everyone and therefore everywhere. We are first and foremost bearers of God’s image and so our primary calling is to honour God. Thus we can stand up for Kingdom values of justice in the world and values of truth, grace, mercy and love in every sphere of life.
This week a new series has started on TV – Bad Habits, Holy Orders – where five young women, self confessed party girls whose image conscious lives centre around clothes, make up, alcohol, casual relationships and having a “good time” have signed up for a spiritual exploration never expecting that they will end up spending four weeks in a convent in Norfolk. In the first week they have already begun to have their perspectives shifted on clothes, money, reliance on social media and much else and have learned to appreciate others more, It will be interesting to see how they progress as they are confronted by entirely different ideas of identity, image and self-worth. They are learning too that the spiritual is in everything from shopping and cleaning to basketball and prayer in the chapel.
Our Gospel story has tended to allow people to see a duality in the world – between “God’s” and “the Emperor’s” – the spiritual versus the economic and political. But we are all in God’s image – so every interaction is about God. The spiritual may be personal but the personal is, as it is said, political (and economic and social) – so the spiritual, God’s realm, encompasses all of life. Honouring God’s image in ourselves means honouring God’s image in others, in everyone, all the time. We don’t need to chase any other image.
Reader Anne Grant.