Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Isaiah 45:1-7
Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

The lectionary, the schedule of readings that we follow Sunday by Sunday, continues to take us in a sequential way through the Gospel of Matthew. We have listened for a bunch of weeks running as Jesus has told us short stories. And it is apparent that these stories have alarmed at least some of the religious and civic authorities who are listening. Because they decide today that they need to push back – more than that, that they need to trap Jesus. And their traps looks like this: They are going to ask Jesus whether or not folks like him and his followers ought to pay tax to Rome.

This is a question that has no good answer, especially when it is asked in public. If Jesus says yes, that is an insult to all of his followers, to everyone who is enduring the oppression of empire. To say yes to paying tax under occupation and within a system in which tax collection is corrupt (tax collectors are something like the Ancient Near East’s answer to the Mafia) is for Jesus to announce that he is okay with being a collaborator and with participating in a crooked system.

To say no, however, is to insult empire itself. And that, as anyone who has endured life within a dictatorship can tell you, is to risk getting disappeared in the middle of the night. When you are living in East Germany or modern-day China or Israel under the boot of Rome, announcing that you will not be giving your money to government is something that you do at your peril.

This is a gotcha question, a deadly question.

But if this question phases Jesus, if his heart starts racing when he hears it, we see none of that on the outside. Jesus tells them to bring him a coin. If this scene were happening right now, maybe he would ask them to produce a twenty-dollar bill.

And he asks them:

Whose head is this?

Although folks who know ancient Greek tell us that the question might better be translated a little differently. They suggest that the question that Jesus is asking would more accurately be rendered:

Whose image is this?

That’s a significant distinction. Because if you are even passingly familiar with scripture, then and now, you know that to ask about someone’s image is to evoke the Book of Genesis:

God made them, male and female, in God’s image.

It is after making humanity that God says that everything that God made was very good.

Whose image is this?

And suddenly it is the folks asking seeking to trap Jesus who are in a dangerous place, who have no right answer. Because to answer that coin depicts someone made in the image of God is to announce that there is an authority far greater the emperor. And in a time when the emperor controls life and death, when Rome says that the Emperor is a god himself, to suggest that the emperor is subject to anyone or less powerful than anyone is to engage in a reckless act of subversion. But to deny to this is God’s image is to engage in sacrilege, it is to declare that there are places and people to whom the power of God does not reach.

Maybe there is a moment of excruciating, expectant silence as the authorities weigh their answer. Jesus is giving them a holy opportunity to offer a daring response. And the authorities – well, they are suddenly wondering why they began this conversation in the first place.

And then, after pausing forever, at last they speak. And because the fear of Empire has beaten down their theological imaginations, they answer Jesus’ question literally:

That is the emperor’s image.

And Jesus lowers the currency. Like a magician done with his trick, he hands it back to whoever leant it to him.

Then,

he says to the authorities,

I guess you’d better give it to the emperor. And give to God the things that are God’s.

The authorities are, the text says, amazed. Although gobsmacked might get closer. Do they leave with their tails between their legs? Or do they leave with a crack in the armour, with an opening to something beautiful and new?

Today, McLeod has discerned a call to be baptised. Normally, this would be an occasion for many people to gather to celebrate. But we can’t do that in pandemic: there are just a few of us here in the courtyard. But we are trusting that there are many more of you on the far side of the screen, that there we are surrounded by what Paul wonderfully calls so great a cloud of witnesses right now, not only in heaven but also on the internet.

As McLeod enters into the baptismal waters, Jesus us will ask you and me the same question that he asks of the authorities. Jesus will introduce us to McLeod and say:

Whose image is this?

And in the pause before we answer, Jesus will speak again. He will invite us to look around us. If you are here in the courtyard, look at the other people with you in this place. If you are home, maybe look out the window. Perhaps there is someone walking past your home. Maybe, if you don’t live alone, there is someone sitting beside you or working in your kitchen. Jesus says:

Whose image is this?

And again, Jesus will speak before we can answer.  Jesus will show us the earth itself. The trees, the birds dancing across the arc of the sky, the ground beneath our feet. God’s first creation, what Augustine calls the first Bible. And Jesus will ask:

Whose image is this?

And then once more – I know that jokes and parables tend to feature things that happen three times, but Jesus is asking us a fourth time this morning – Jesus will show us that in the baptismal waters we can see our own reflection. He will point at that reflection and say:

Whose image is this?

How shall we answer? This question maybe isn’t frightening in the same way that it was in Jesus’ day: the secret police aren’t going to come get us if we answer in the wrong way. But I want to suggest that it remains a life and death question. And it remains a question to which this world, to which the powers and principalities, to which what Dorothy Day called the Dirty Rotten System invites us to give theologically unimaginative and dangerous answers.

This System invites us to look at our fellow human beings and to answer the question Whose image is this? by saying something like: That is a consumer. The primary value of this person, maybe the entire value of this person, is in their capacity to spend money, to buy stuff. And the world is very clear about who someone who no longer has money. That person is a loser.

The System invites us to look at creation itself and to answer the question Whose image is this? by saying something like: This is a resource to be used up. The primary value of this earth and the creatures upon it is the goods and the services that creation can yield to me.

The System invites us to look at ourselves reflected in the waters and to answer the question Whose image is this? by saying something like: Here is someone who is inadequate. My skin is not great, my tummy is too big, my hair is kind of sad. I am difficult to get along with. I may be unlovable.

Notice that all three of these answers are about money, about the love of money. Jesus is still holding a coin as he asks us about them.

And each of these answers to Jesus’ question is a God damn lie. Each of them is heresy, a rejection of what God has told us about our neighbour, about creation, about ourselves. We know that there is a better answer, a holier answer. We know what the answer is. So let’s offer it.

Now, I know that Episcopalians don’t like shouting stuff out, and I know that it is kind of weird to be at home and shouting stuff at the computer screen (although I actually do that fairly often) but I’m going to challenge us to see if we can put down out academic reserve a little bit and to shout out our answers this morning. The question is Whose image is this? And the answer is, This is the image of God!

Do you want to do a practice run? Whose image is this?

This is the image of God!

As McLeod gets ready to step into the waters of baptism, we look together at him. And Jesus asks:

Whose image is this?

This is the image of God!

We look around the courtyard at one another or out the window at our neighbour or at our family members or roommates, people whom we have maybe seen slightly too much of these past few months. Jesus show us each of them and asks:

Whose image is this?

This is the image of God!

We look at creation. The fragile wonder of it. The air we breathe, the food we eat, the ground which holds us up and to which, one day, we will return. And Jesus asks:

Whose image is this?

This is the image of God!

We look at ourselves. This one, for some of us, will be the hardest. Our hands. Our feet. Our lungs breathing in and out. Our faces. And Jesus asks:

Whose image is this?

This is the image of God!

If we take the answer to Jesus’ question even passingly seriously, it cannot help but change us. If the man lying on the street is the image of God, dare we ignore him? If the earth is the image of God, dare we abuse it? If you are the image of God, dare you speak to yourself with anything less than love? We are the Body of Christ. We are, somehow, not only followers of Jesus but participants in Jesus, members of Jesus. His story is our story. And remember what Jesus discovers in baptism. It is what you and I discover in baptism. We are the image of God. In the waters, the dove descends upon us, descends upon you. And the voice of the Father says, This is my child, the beloved. In whom I am well pleased.