Bearing God’s Image

“Why didn’t you make me win God? I’ve been praying to you about this all week!”  A clearly distressed man prays to God after the results of the latest lotto draw have been announced.

He had been praying constantly that he would win, telling God what he was going to do with the fifty percent of the prize draw which he did not need: how he was going to help the homeless and the poor, all the good things that he was going to give to his family and his friends, and of course the large amount that he was going to contribute to the Church.  But now as he watches his television screen he has seen the announcer reveal another winner — it is not him. All that prayer and yet at the end of the day nothing.  “Why didn’t you make me win God? I have been praying to you about this all week!” he says. A voice from heaven comes in reply, “next time meet me half way – and at least buy a lottery ticket!”

Right at the heart of our lives, at the heart of our worries and concerns, whether we like it or not, is often the question of money. If we have a lot of it, we want to be sure that we will hang on to it; if we do not have enough we want to try as hard as we can to get more.  Things like Lotto play on some of our deepest desires, to be able (overnight) to buy a nicer house, a better car, more fashionable clothes, the opportunity to travel, and whilst none of these things are bad in themselves, they lead us to live our lives always looking ahead for something better, always being distracted by desire for more, rather than living in a state of thankfulness for all that we have already.

The question of money is right at the heart of the story which we heard in our Gospel reading this Morning as well. The church remembers and records for us an encounter between Jesus and those who seek to trick him and to undermine his ministry, the Pharisees and Herodians sent to trap him.  As we have just heard, these questioners come to Jesus and ask him, “is it lawful or not to pay taxes to the emperor?”

That might seem like a fairly innocent query, from people with a genuine desire to learn from him.  But underneath their question these religious leaders who are in reality hostile to him, feel certain that they will cause Jesus to get into an enormous amount of trouble as he gives his response; because Jesus really only has two options with which to reply.  Either he can say in the hearing of the crowd, “no it is not lawful for religious men and women to pay taxes to Caesar,” in which case the Romans will come to hear about it, and he will be taken away, and tried and Sentenced for sedition; or the other alternative is that he can say, “yes it is lawful,” and thereby lose the credibility and the respect of the onlookers, because these are people who are living under foreign rulers who they despise, and who they don’t like paying taxes to.

So Jesus is trapped, by a seemingly innocent question: it looks like the wisdom of God has been boxed into a corner by clever men.  So what does Jesus do? He does what we have seen him do so often before, he answers that clever question with a further question.  Asking for a coin (you notice that he does not have one of his own) he examines it and asks the crowd whose head is depicted on it, whose title is given, and they say of course, “the emperor’s.”

He looks at them as if to say well you have answered your own question, and then he makes his response clear, “Isn’t it obvious, don’t worry about these coins, give to the emperor the things which belong to the emperor.  But he has not finished yet, because Jesus will transform this limited conversation about money, into a teaching about what it really means to give. “Give to the emperor the things which belong to the emperor,” he says, “and give to God the things which belong to God.”

The coin which Jesus held in his hand as he said these things, was probably a silver denarius, one day’s wages for an ordinary labourer. The actual version of that coin at the time of Jesus depicted the reigning emperor, Tiberius. The Latin inscription on the coin, according to those which have been excavated and are available to us today, reads “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the divine Augustus and Augustus.

Our coins here in Australia like those throughout the Commonwealth bear a similar image, because our coins are modelled on the coins of imperial Rome. They are not the image of an emperor, but the image of the Queen of England, Elizabeth II.  In the years before television those coins often provided the only depiction of the queen which most people ever saw. And that was true of the British kings and queens before her, and it was true of the Roman emperor’s coins as well.  They were not just legal currency, but an opportunity for people to look at an image of the king or the queen or the emperor.

Whilst the coins in England (not our coins here but the coins of pounds and pence in the UK) include in the inscription of her titles that the Queen is the Defender of Faith, (the title which has been passed down by British monarchs since Henry VIII); the title which surrounded the picture of the Emperor Tiberius was “Son of God: son of the Divine Augustus.”

The Romans glorified in the deification, (the godliness) of their leaders, but the Jews to whom Jesus was speaking, who knew that there was only one God saw such titles and such images as an abomination.  So much so, that when Jews went to worship in the Temple they swapped their ordinary money for religious money as they entered the Temple precincts, so that only holy money was given as an offering to God (remember Jesus turning over the tables of the money changers, that is what those people’s jobs were; because the image of the emperor, who was considered by the Romans to be the heir of the divine could not be looked at by theJewish people of Jesus’ day because to do so was idolatry.

Which is why, in another translation of this story, Jesus actually asks the question, (not whose head but) whose image is on the coin, inferring that the people should give to the Emperor the things which bear his image, and to God the things which bear God’s image, which I think reaches right to the heart of the point which Jesus is making.  Those Jews who were listening to Jesus, like us who hear the story today, believe that we are created in the image of God. We didn’t just turn up’ by chance, we aren’t living out lives purely to gain all that we can for ourselves,  we are made wonderfully and beautifully and lovingly in the image of God.  So when Jesus says, “Give to God the things which bear God’s image,” he is talking about more than us just paying some coins in tax to the authorities, he is calling us to give our lives to God.

Just as that money bore the image of the emperor, and so belonged ultimately to the emperor, Jesus calls us to give ourselves, who bear the image of our creator God, back to God through our lives and our actions.  That will include all that we have as well, but the greatest call is for us to give ourselves.

I love that car bumper sticker, “born free — taxed to death!” but the point of what Jesus is saying is not about whether we should pay tax or not, he is talking about something much bigger than that. He is talking about us giving ourselves and our world back to God.

During the past week we have been especially remembering in the Christian calendar (through the festivals of All Saints and All Souls) those dear people who have gone before us in the faith in Christ.

Some of those who have died and who we see no longer, have lived very ordinary and simple Christian lives. Others have been remembered through many centuries as people of enormous faith, whose lives have pointed not to themselves but to the image of Christ within them.  What has been true for them is true for us as well. We are called, to bear the image of God, and not supremely the image of this world, in our lives too.

That call to bear God’s image is at the heart of the promises of our baptismal covenant. As we light a candle around the font, we say to those who have been baptised, “shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father”. Shine out with the image of the love of God, seen through his son, Jesus Christ our Lord. That call to shine with the image of God is at the heart of the vision of Becoming Ministering Communities in Mission. Just like in many other parishes around the Diocese, we will be especially reflecting on this vision at the start of December, and I am looking forward to being a part of that reflection.

Anglicans across the Diocese, as they focus on this vision are discovering, or affirming what they already knew, that when we look deeply within ourselves, we find that Gods image is imprinted on each one of our lives to such an extent that we have each been given (by the power of the Holy Spirit) gifts and abilities, to use in this mission of sharing God’s love with others.

The Bishops of the Anglican Communion around the world, (including Australia), at their last international meeting in 1998 focused particularly on the question of what this mission was all about. In their Lambeth Conference report they wrote this:

“Mission goes out from God. Mission is God’s way of loving and saving the world.  God calls his creatures to a future greater than they could ever make for themselves… But the deeper we go into the meaning of God’s call as it is recorded for us, the more we see that it tells us something of what God is. God does not simply call; God sends… We believe in a God who is completely engaged in mission and whose very life is a movement outwards, giving and sharing divine life and joy…  So mission is never our intention or choice. It has always started already. We have been caught up in God’s own movement of love by being called to be with Jesus.  To be with or “in” Jesus is never to enjoy some static or private relationship within him; it is to be moving with him from the heart of God to the ends of the earth…  Since baptism is the beginning of our journey with Christ, mission is to be the concern of all the baptised… If being baptised means being drawn into God’s own act of mission, then that divine mission is going on in all of us constantly. The more we let this divine action through, in our plans, our Words and acts, the more it will achieve its purpose…”

Mission is God’s way of loving and saving the world.  Every one of us and not just our priests, are called to share in this movement of mission.

God has given to each of us a special gift to share in the life of the Church.  How can we (each one of us) give to God the things which bear his image, as we seek to shine as lights in the world pointing not to ourselves, but to the love of God which we find in Jesus?