It’s All About Image
People worry about their image. I used to more preoccupied with it than I am now! Weren’t you? As a teenager I was concerned about my image. For me, the image I wanted to portray was not the popular kid or the athlete but the quiet outdoorsy type, if you can believe that. But, even now I like to be seen in a positive light, a certain image. So to a certain extent I do want to fashion the image I wish to present to the world. We all do. And this doesn’t mean it is a false image but perhaps the image of who we believe we most truly are.
In the business world it is crucial to have a recognizable image. “Branding” they call it. You need to have a “brand” whether you are selling cars, an overnight stay, or caring for the spiritual welfare of souls as in the work of the church. We are told by the religious/spiritual marketing experts that churches need a “brand” and we need to promote or (to use the business terminology) market it! Because, the truth of it is, if we don’t promote one, a brand will be attached to us by the community and its perception what we do and/or do not do.
How do you suppose the world has branded First Congregational UCC? Is this how we want to be seen by our wider community? In other words, what is the first thought or image that comes into someone’s mind when they hear that you attend this church?
With this bit of introduction let’s look at the gospel reading for today.
This is the first of a series of three passages in Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus is being tested by Jewish religious leaders. Here the Pharisees quiz him about the lawfulness of paying taxes. This account is immediately followed by the Sadducees’ question about the resurrection which is an important theological point for them for they did not believe in the resurrection. (Matthew 22:23-33). Then (in next Sunday’s reading) the Pharisees are back with a question about the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:34-40). And finally, Jesus will respond with a question to the Pharisees about the Messiah in which Jesus pushes them on an interpretation of Psalm 110:1 (Matthew 22:41-46).
These four encounters follow Jesus’s teaching in the Jerusalem temple, during which he declines to say by what authority he is teaching, and then tells a series of parables which are highly critical of the religious authorities (Parable of the Two Sons, Parable of the Wicked Tenants, Parable of the Wedding Banquet). Matthew’s account culminates in Jesus’s warning to his followers: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach” (Matthew 23:2-3).
Today’s reading is a story which is often used as a basis for a reflection on the relationship between church and state. Which we know even today is far from settled! At the end of this month, October 31, the church will be marking the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. This is the date that popular legend says a Roman Catholic monk and scholar, Martin Luther, nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church. In actuality, he more likely just hung the document on the door of the church as an announcement of an upcoming academic discussion he was proposing. But his propositions were radical enough to result in what we call the Protestant Reformation.
It was Martin Luther’s reading of this passage in Matthew which helped him to develop his doctrine of the two kingdoms, which distinguished between God’s spiritual rule through the gospel and the church, and God’s political or secular rule, through law and the authorities of the state. In light of Jesus’ words Luther’s view about rendering or giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s was that, the soul is not under the authority of Caesar (the state); “he” can neither teach it nor guide it, neither kill it nor give it life, neither bind it nor loose it, neither judge it nor condemn it, neither hold it fast nor release it. … But with respect to body, property, and honor …, such matters are under Caesar’s (state) authority.
I dare say there might be a few today that would take some issue with Luther’s view! But Luther’s thinking impacted church and state relationships including the version of it which was established in the fledgling democracy of the thirteen colonies.
In place of Luther’s language of gospel and law, it seems more helpful to me to tie it into last week’s message about idols and explore the question of “ultimate belonging.” And ask the questio, “Ultimately, whose are we?”
Jesus asked for a coin. The coin … bears Caesar’s eikōn [image], and belongs to Caesar. Humans, on the other hand, bear the eikōn of God.
In the first account of creation Genesis 1:27 we read these familiar words:
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
For Luther, people (back then only men) may pay the infamous poll tax among other taxes, but they do not belong to the emperor. Humans bear God’s image and wherever they live and operate –whether in the social, economic, political, or religious realm– they belong to God. Their primary loyalties do not switch (for Luther) when they move out of church and into the polling booth.
Human beings, made in the image of God, are called to belong to God.
As humankind, we are created to be in the image and likeness of God in our nature and in our thinking, in the way we behave and conduct ourselves, and in the words we speak. We are to be a reflection of God.
Now of course we are not created in the physical image of God for no one knows what God looks like! The Hebrew words translated image and likeness in Genesis do not convey any sense of physicality but refers to the nature and essence of God. We are like God in that we have the ability to understand, to reason, to create, to act and behave, to feel and see, to listen and speak, but most of all to show compassion, to love.
It was John who wrote in his letter, God is love. (1 John 4:8)
When asked by the lawyer about inheriting eternal life, Jesus in turn asked him, “What is in the law?” The lawyer, a man of reputation (perhaps worried about image) replied, “You shall love the God with all you heart, soul, strength, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Do you recall how Jesus answered him? The Parable of the Good Samaritan.
As Jesus taught in many of his parables but perhaps most poignantly in the “Parable of the Good Samaritan” it is not about our status in the church (the priest) or the culture (the Levite) it is about how we love our neighbor.
Whose image do we ultimately bear?
I believe this in large part if not the whole, will be determined by how well we love!
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