Saturday, 22 October 2011

17th Sunday after trinity: Whose image?

1 Thess. 1:1-
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace.

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of people we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place where your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

Matthew 22:15-22
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

In my family I used to have a bit of a reputation with a game called Connect 4. If you’ve not seen it, it’s a game where you drop counters into an array of holes, taking it in turns with your opponent, to try and get a line of four counters of your own colour in any direction; horizontal, vertical or diagonal.

The best way to achieve this is to put your opponent into a no-win position by carefully building your game plan so that at some point you make a move that leaves you with three counters in a row and a space at either end. Whatever counter-move your opponent makes, they can’t beat you because you have out-maneuvered them. You have put them into a lose-lose position

This week’s Gospel reading follows on from last week’s and we are therefore still following Jesus around Jerusalem as the religious authorities try to trap him in exactly the same way. They were aiming to put him in a position where his response would damn them, whatever it was. The reason this question about paying taxes to Rome was a trap was because it was designed to leave him with two options, either denouncing the Romans or denouncing the Jews.

You see the Jews didn’t believe that it was right to pay taxes to Rome because Rome was the occupying country. If a country comes in, takes over your land, and then demands you pay taxes to live there, then you are justifiably going to be a little tetchy about it. There had been riots and uprisings about paying the tax, and of course the Romans had put these down with their usual brand of brutal efficiency.

But if Jesus sided with this anti-tax point of view then the Romans could arrest him. However, if he said that Jews should pay the Roman tax, then the Pharisees would succeed in discrediting him in front of all of his followers. How could a Jewish Messiah possibly countenance the idea of paying a tax to the Romans? It seemed that they had designed a perfect lose-lose situation for Jesus. So how did he get out of it?

The first thing that Jesus did was to ask them for a coin. That was a wonderful opening move from him because it accomplished two things. Firstly he would have succeeded in embarrassing them because it showed he was too poor to have a coin of his own, whereas they had plenty. Secondly it showed that he was being a good Jew because he didn’t carry any of the despised Roman currency.

Then comes the masterstroke when he asks them whose image is on the coin and they reply that it is the emperor’s; Caesar’s, and he succeeds in embarrassing them even further because according to Jewish law no Jew should be in possession of anything with an image of a deity on it, and according to Roman belief, Caesar was a god.

Jesus then gives the answer that teaches a deep truth. He declares that if something bears the image of someone, then it should be counted as belonging to that person. So if the image is of Caesar, then the coin must belong to him, so give it back to him. It’s a masterstroke by Jesus, but there is also an unspoken comment that he has implied, and that’s what we’re going to think about now.

Cast your mind back to when you first looked in the mirror this morning. It probably wasn’t the best you have ever looked, but it would have been a fair reflection of what you look like without your hair brushed, your face washed, a shave for the men or perhaps without make-up on for the women.

If you looked for it, you could probably see similarities with your parents, your brothers or sisters; and for some of us, the thing that caught our eyes might have been our wrinkles or our latest grey hair! I know that I look a very different person when I have first woken up from the one you see before you now!

For most of the time a look in the mirror is just a cursory glance or a check that everything is in place before we face the world. But it isn’t always like that. Our reflections are not neutral. Our reflections can make us feel great, or can make us critical of ourselves. When we look in a mirror we often see things that we do not like about ourselves.

Those who are very thin but are convinced they have a weight problem will look at themselves and see a fat figure where there is really one of skin and bone. Those with little self-esteem will see someone that they dislike. People of any age who grew up with demanding parents will probably see the reflection of someone who never tries hard enough. Mirrors can often show us exactly what we do not want to see.

Now let me add into this mix a very short reading from Genesis 1:26-27
Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

Now let me take you back to what Jesus said. If a coin bearing Caesar’s image belonged to Caesar, whose image do you bear? It must be the image of God. And if the coin bearing Caesar’s image belongs to Caesar, then if you bear God’s image, you belong to him.

You. Belong. To. God. And there is nothing you can do, no sin you can commit, no piece of work you could have done better that can ever change that rock-solid unchangeable fact. You are his, and he is yours to be adored for all eternity.

Every single one of you are created to be like God in some way. I’m not saying that God has two eyes, a nose and mouth, but there is something about your very nature which means you are like God. Different parts of your personalities will reflect different parts of God’s personality.
And if St. John can write that, ‘God is love’, then everyone of you has the capability to use your gifts lovingly, because that’s what God does and you are like him.

Now if God is good, and you are in God’s image, what does that say about the possibilities for the people who share your life? Without doing anything other than being yourself you have the capability to change people’s lives for the better. You can make a difference.

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