Texts: Exodus 33.12-23; 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10; Matthew 22.15-22
The Greeks tell of a fellow named Narcissus. He was very handsome and loved to go down to the waterhole and gaze at his own likeness in the pond's surface. After a while he became so enamoured of the image gazing back at him that he forgot himself and tried to embrace the handsome fellow in the water. Of course he fell into the pond, the handsome image disappeared in an explosion of broken fragments, and Narcissus drowned.
Our own society, like Narcissus, is obsessed with images and illusions. The media bombard us with images of shiny happy people in shiny happy settings with shiny happy cars and houses and friends and bank accounts. But all this is illusion. It has almost nothing to do with the real lives that each of us live in the flesh. Social media, which have become the dominant mediator of these images, are rarely a mirror which reflects who we are and how we behave. It is we who have become the mirror, the pond surface, which now reflects back the world imagined by social media, a world in which a person’s ultimate value depends entirely on how many ‘likes’ or other responses they can marshal in response to whatever fashionable fiction they are presenting about either themselves or the world. When this virtual world of images and illusions becomes more 'real' than the world of flesh and blood and bodies—bodies that are able to feel and know and breathe the air—then something has gone tragically wrong. Because when flesh and blood people seek to escape their mortal conditions in favour of a world of fashionable surfaces and manufactured happiness, we also lose our capacity for soul, for value and for meaning. Like Narcissus, we awake to a reality which is so far away from who we really are, that we find ourselves 'all at sea', drowning in a tragic forgetfulness concerning who and what we are for God.
I suspect that when Matthew tells the story about Jesus and the image of Caesar on a coin, he is already reflecting upon a version of these same difficulties. You see the people who approached Jesus to ask about paying taxes to the invading superpower, were themselves caught in a kind of twilight zone between reality and fashion. They were the leaders of two significant political parties in Israel at the time, the Pharisees and the Herodians. On the one hand, they wanted to see themselves as servants of Israel's God, people who bore the image and likeness of God in their bodies and, indeed, in all the business of life. On the other hand, they wanted to present themselves as servants of the Emperor, whose image and insignia were everywhere in this occupied country—a constant reminded that Caesar would tolerate no rivals for the people's hearts and minds.
Jesus sees the ambivalence of his interrogators immediately. The one who, in his sermon on the mount, had said 'you cannot serve two masters . . . you cannot serve both God and Mammon' sees immediately their predilection for doing just that. So, he calls them 'hypocrites' because they are people who think that they can remain children of God, made in his image and likeness, even while they reach out to inscribe themselves with the image and likeness of the Imperium. So, when Jesus says 'Give to the Emperor the things that are the Emperor's, and to God the things that are God's' he is certainly not being ambivalent. In the context of Matthew's gospel as a whole, and the Sermon on the Mount in particular, it is clear that Jesus is issuing a challenge to his hearers, as well as to us: Whose image do we bear in this world? Who do we seek to imitate? Do we bear the image of the Emperor, seeking only to be what the dominant politics and commerce would make of us? Or do we bear the image and likeness of God, who created us as free human people, purposed to love God and neighbour with a deep and liberating love? Whose image do you bear? According to Matthew, none of us may bear both. We must all choose either one or the other.
But what does it really mean to reject the illusions begotten by worldly empires and bear, instead, the image of God? When Moses returned from Sinai, having sat in the fiery presence of a fiery God for forty days and forty nights, his face shone (we are told) with the glory of the Maker. One might say that his body was indelibly marked with the image of God's awesome presence and power. Now much of Christian tradition has represented this moment in the highly romantic images of a Cecil B. de Mille movie, which has Moses coming down the mountain a taller, and somehow more majestic and mystical figure than when he ascended. I really doubt, however, that this is really the impression that the writers of Exodus wanted to create. Elsewhere in Exodus, God is represented as a consuming fire who first appears to Moses in a burning bush, and then destroys the firstborn of Egypt, and then leads the people through the wilderness in the form of a fiery pillar. When the people arrive at Sinai, God makes it clear that it is very, very dangerous to come into his presence. For his holiness is like a fire which consumes all that is not holy. The people are commanded, therefore, to make their camp some distance from the mountain where the fire has come to rest.
All of this creates in my mind the impression that Moses' glowing face, far from being transfigured after the manner of Jesus in the gospels, is more likely to have been burned or seared by the fire of God’s holiness, purged and purified as if by a refiner’s fire, so that he comes away not only with the wonderful commands of the covenant, but also with the face of a saint who, by a long struggle with God and his darkest self, now bears the wounds of an encounter with holiness. Theologically speaking, Moses might then be understood to bear the image of God in a way which speaks of salvation through struggle and loss—a state of liberation and joy only attainable by human beings if they are willing to submit themselves to the refining fire of God's love.
Bearing the image of our God, you see, is both glorious and painful. It is glorious, as Paul says to the Thessalonians, because it bears witness to our release from the false images and idols of this world, and to our newfound freedom and joy in the Spirit of God. But it is also painful, because the true image of God creates controversy and persecution for all who bear it. And this is clear from the story of Jesus himself. No-one bore the true image and likeness of God so perfectly as Jesus our Lord. The great hymns of Colossians and Hebrews call him the true ikon or image of the Creator, the exact representation of God’s being. But bearing God's image clearly did not exempt Jesus from the storms of human fragility and pain. Indeed, if one takes the message of the gospels seriously, it is clear that Jesus suffered and died precisely because he bore God's image, because he loved the poor and the godless with such a genuine sincerity and compassion, because he showed in his own being and behaviour the height and depth and breadth of God's love for our world. Because of these things he was persecuted, tortured and murdered. Wherever the true image of God's love and mercy is present, you see, the economic and political powers become very, very paranoid. And they lash out to destroy it.
Friends, let me summarize what I am saying to you very simply. To bear the image and likeness of God is to love, and keep on loving, for God is love. There is freedom and joy and peace in this, a peace which goes deep, like a river, to satisfy our longings and quench our thirst. But there is also pain. Paul said to the Galatians 'may I never boast of anything, save the cross of the Lord, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the life of the world' (6.14). This 'world' of which Paul speaks is not the world of mountains and streams and all in human culture that it noble or beautiful or true. It is the world of lies, of the false images of the good life; it is the world where the weakest and most vulnerable are trashed in the wine-press of corporate greed and nationalist paranoia. If we are people who bear the image of a loving God to a world such as this, then we must expect that they will try to crucify us. And we must be prepared to crucify those false images and idols in ourselves by confession, prayer and the worship of the crucified One.
Be of good courage, my friends. Be of good courage you imitators of Christ. For the one who was crucified is risen! In the power of his resurrection, Christ overcame the world, and created for us the space to love and be loved in the eternal circle-dance of the Trinity. In his power, and for the sake of the world he loves, we are called to bear his image in these jars of clay, and to bear in our bodies the scars of Christ's compassion. It is a high and difficult calling. No doubt. But God is faithful. I am convinced that neither height or depth, nor angels, nor demons, nor powers, not principalities, nor the present, nor the future, will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.