Pentecost 20: Image, Likeness, and Identity

Matthew 22:15-22
Genesis 1:26

Dear Partner in Preaching,

Allow a suggestion for this week’s preaching: substitute Genesis 1:26 for the first reading, normally from Isaiah (45:1-7) or Exodus (33:12-23). Yes, a single verse. Why? Because I have a feeling it is a verse that might have come to mind to some of those listening to Jesus’ exchange with the Pharisees and Herodians. Allow me to explain.

We are at the point in Matthew’s story about Jesus where things are getting pretty tense. Earlier in the week, Jesus had entered Jerusalem and been greeted by adoring crowds (Mt. 21:1-11). Riding this wave of popular acclaim, he immediately enters the Temple and overthrows the tables of the money-changes, challenging both the political and religious powers that be. Confronted by the religious leaders regarding the authority behind his actions, Jesus tells several provocative, even threatening parables calling into question their own authority and, indeed, standing before God.

It’s for this reason that two groups that normally wanted little to do with each other – the Herodians derived their power from the Roman occupiers, while the Pharisees aligned more closely with the occupied and oppressed commoners – declare a temporary truce in order to work together to trap this upstart rabbi. The question they pose is beyond clever, asking Jesus whether it was lawful to pay the poll or imperial tax that funded Roman occupation. Should Jesus answer in the affirmative, the adoration of the crowds would likely not simply evaporate, but rather be turned into opposition. Should he answer negatively, however, then he will have positioned himself over and against the Romans, never a wise thing to do. So they’ve got him trapped.

Or at least that’s what they think. Because if their question is clever, Jesus’ response is ingenious or, more appropriately, inspired, leading to an exchange that is as revealing as it is brief. After asking if any of his questioners has a coin of the Empire – the only coin that could be used to pay the tax in question – they quickly procure one. Jesus asks whose image is on it, and they answer “The Emperor’s.” There’s more going on here than meets the eye, as along with that image is an engraved confession of Caesar’s divinity, which means that any Jew holding the coin is breaking the first two of the commandments. All of which leads to Jesus’ closing line, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And with this one sentence, Jesus does not simply evade their trap or confound their plans, but issues a challenge to his hearers that reverberates through the ages into our sanctuaries.

There are, of course, any number of ways one might interpret Jesus forceful, but also enigmatic, response. Some will hear in Jesus’ words an opportunity to remind their congregation of the importance of civic engagement while also urging them to come to church so that they may hear God’s distinct word of justifying grace and forgiveness that in turn propels them back out into the world again. Others will take a more political turn, discerning in Jesus’ injunction the call to warn against capitulating to the “emperors” of this day and urging loyalty to the kingdom of God (which just so happens to look and sound a lot like the preacher’s own political affiliation). Still others will see in Jesus’ pronouncement the opportunity for a stewardship sermon – it is still October, after all! – and remind their listeners just how much of what they possess is truly God’s and therefore urge greater generosity and fidelity.

All of these are possible and perhaps to some degree legitimate interpretations, but my homiletical imagination went in another direction, as while I read this story I kept hearing the verse from the opening chapter of Genesis: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” Likeness – ikon – is the word used in the Septuagint (Greek translation) of Genesis and is also the word Matthew chooses. So a better translation of v. 20 is likely, “Whose likeness is this, and what title?” I don’t know how many of Jesus’ audience would have caught that, but I suspect those listening closely to Jesus’ word choice would have harkened back to God’s initial pronouncement and promise: We bear God’s likeness and are therefore made to be more than we sometimes realize.

Pause for a moment to let that sink in. We were made in the image and likeness of God, and because we bear God’s likeness we are to act like God. Not mind you, like gods, those who lord their authority over others for self-gain, but rather like God – the One who creates and sustains and nurtures and redeems and saves…no matter what the cost. We are called, that is, to serve as God’s agents, God’s partners, and God’s co-workers, exercising dominion over creation not as an act of power but rather as an act of stewardship and extending to all the abundant life God wishes for all.

Notice that despite the fact that Jesus’ opponents carry a coin with a graven image and confession of Caesar’s divinity, Jesus accuses them of neither blasphemy nor disloyalty. Rather, he calls them hypocrites, those who have quite literally taken to wearing another, and false, likeness. So perhaps the charge against those trying to entrap or discount Jesus then or now is best understood as amnesia, for they have forgotten who they are, in whose likeness they were made. So the opportunity before us, Dear Partner, is to call people back to their primary identity as God’s children and stewards, as those made in the likeness of God and charged to act like the God we see in Jesus. (This story falls, after all, in the days leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion.)

That will be an important word to offer, not just once but regularly. Because figuring out just what that means for our daily life, decisions, and actions is rarely easy. And while we will be tempted to urge our people to act not just as Jesus does but as we do – that is, persuading them of whatever political stances we hold, sincerely believing they best embody the kingdom Jesus’ proclaims – the truth is that Christians of good faith can disagree on the best way to live into and further God’s kingdom on earth. And my or your confident prescription of action may make it harder for someone who feels differently to hear God’s promise of identity and call to stewardship, a promise and call that overtime has the capacity to transform them far more than any immediate rallying cry.

Does that mean we say nothing about the issues of the day? No. But it means that when we name the issues of the day we also recognize the complexity of those issues, we hold up the values we see Jesus live, we make space for the variety of voices and contributions of our people, we look for God’s work beyond our community and the places we normally expect God to be, and we call each other back to God’s word and promise and charge that we are made in God’s own image and likeness and are therefore called to live in a way that others may detect the family resemblance.

Hard work, Dear Partner, both for the preacher and our people. But also good work. Important work. Work that calls for our all. Thank you – and bless you – for taking it up so regularly and faithfully.

Yours in Christ,

PS: My apologies for missing last week. I came down with a nasty cold and it was all I could do to attend to my usual responsibilities as a pastor and just couldn’t pull things together to write.

PPS: A few have asked for references to previous commentary when I’ve written more than one. Sometimes it’s hard to find the additional time to locate and post those references, but I’ll try. With regard to this passage, I’ve written twice before, once three years ago on this site, and once six years ago at Working Preacher.