Who do you look like?
Last Sunday, 18th October (yes, sorry, I'm posting these out of order!) I was privileged to lead the service at our online service. I'm the Worship Leader at Christ Church, Clermont Ferrand.
I remember the first time I met the woman who was to become my mother in law. I had previously spent time with Andrew in local pubs, or gone out for lunch, or for walks, with him meeting me at the house where I was staying or at a pre-arranged place, but one day, some weeks into our relationship I had been invited for lunch to his home, where he lived with his parents,. I arrived, full of trepidation, and rang on the doorbell. The door was opened by a small, trim woman, and my first words to her were “Oh, goodness – don’t you look like Andrew?!”
Not necessarily the best greeting, but Pat took it in her stride. I’m not sure she was particularly flattered though! I look at them now, and I’m not sure I can still see the similarity that hit me on that first meeting, but you can judge for yourself, perhaps…
I have a likeness to my sister, I know, and from time to time, I catch myself in the mirror, looking just like her, but I don’t know who I resemble more out of my parents… I've been it's my mum. Again…what do you think?!
In case you’re wondering where this theme is going, if you think about it, the Gospel reading today is about likenesses. Jesus is in the temple, and, as we know, the Chief Priests and Pharisees are out to get him; they want to trick him into saying something that will get him in trouble with the Romans, knowing that this will lead to his incarceration, and probably to his death. So they come up with a plan, and go to find him in the Temple.
“Teacher…” they say, and you can almost hear the insincerity in their voices, ”We know you are sincere…and show deference to no man “ (and, they whisper under their breaths, will therefore get yourself in trouble…) “So tell us, Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
Got him! They think. If he answers that we should pay tax to the Romans, then he will lose the admiration and following of the people; if he answers that it is wrong to pay taxes, then we can snitch on him to the Romans and that will be it. Perfect!!
But Jesus is not to be fooled. “Show me a coin, used to pay the tax “ he asks, and the Priests scrabble in their pockets, or money bags, eager to produce a coin, and catch Jesus out. Triumphantly one is produced, and Jesus asks them the damning question: Whose head is this on the coin, and whose title?
Now to us, that question is seemingly quite innocent, and often from this point, preachers will use the subsequent answer and Jesus’s response to it to preach that as good Christians, we should be paying our taxes, supporting our local communities, and giving money to the Church. Jesus says: Give the state its due, and give to God his due.
But to the people who were listening, there is a much more important issue here. Because, when the Pharisees pronounce the words “The Emperor’s”, they refer to the image on the coin, that of Tiberius Caesar. We do not have reported the title that was written on these coins, used to pay the Temple taxes; archaeologists however have found examples of these coins, and tell us that the inscription reads “Tiberius – Emperor – Son of God”
As the Priests read out the inscription, probably still thinking “We’ve got him now, their voices may have faltered as they realised just what they were doing….In having a coin inscribed with the Emperors face so readily available, they have brought a blasphemous artefact into the sacred Temple - they have broken the third commandment (which reads “Thou shall have no graven images…” Don’t worry, I had to look it up!) And by reading out the inscription – to these sticklers for the Law – they had also broken the second commandment: “Thou shalt have no gods before me”
I can almost hear the sigh of satisfaction from the by-standers, and the embarrassed shuffling of feet from those who thought to have outwitted Jesus. And he could have left it there, but of course, he didn’t.
“Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and give to God the things that are God’s.”
For his listeners, steeped in the Psalms and the Old Testament, this would have rung many bells – In Psalm 24 we read The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains, The world, and those who dwell in it. In the Psalm we heard today there is “the Lord our God is the Holy One.” The implication here is that if everything in the world is God’s, then there is nothing that Caesar owns that was not God’s first.
But there is another well known verse that might have sprung into the minds of those who were there, which is from Genesis, the first book of the Torah: So God created human beings in his own likeness. He created them to be like himself.
The question perhaps that Jesus was asking the Pharisees was not so much whose image is stamped onto the coin, but whose image is stamped on you?
We know what many Roman emperors were like – indulgent, selfish oppressors, who cared little for those over whom they ruled; whose self-deification led them to believe they could do anything without retribution, from raping their own sisters to assassinating their entire family, and worse…. And Jesus is asking are you stamped in the image of these people, or rather, are you dedicated to the loving God of justice, who brought his people out of Egypt, and gave them the Promised Land; who reminds us in the scriptures to care for the poor and oppressed, to love our neighbours as ourselves?
And we are being asked that question as well – whose image is metaphorically stamped onto our lives, our hearts, our souls? Is it the self-indulgent self-seeking image, like that of the worldly Emperor, or is it the image of sacrificial love, the love of God?
But then we need to ask, what does it mean to bear God’s likeness? We have no idea what God might physically look like – artists throughout the ages have tried to capture the essence of God in their paintings. We see the classic old man with a white beard wearing a nightie in Michelangelo’s picture of the creation of man, we have other less traditional depictions in Blake’s paintings, or other more modern artists. But all of them struggle – because we have no idea. Because it is impossible to embody all the infinity of God in one painting. Because it is impossible to describe.
And that is part of the meaning behind the story from Exodus that we heard. I love the fact that despite everything Moses still needs some kind of proof, some sign that God is there with him and the Israelites. Moses has spent days receiving the 10 Commandments, the laws that will govern the Israelite’s lives, he has spoken with God but yet he doubts…. Show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favour in your sight. Show me your glory
A few weeks ago I spoke about how, when God seems to be distant, we need to remember those times when he has been there, when we have known his love, and to hold onto the fact that, even though we may not feel it, we know that he never changes; he is the same yesterday and forever. We need to cling onto faith and just keep plodding on.
But sometimes too, just at the lowest point, when we can’t even begin to consider that God loves us, we get a glimpse of God’s glory. And I think this is what happened with Moses – he was doubting, he was unsure, and God gave Moses just the briefest moment of realisation of what God was, and all the glory of his presence, exactly when he needed it. He was covered by God’s hand in his point of extremis. He saw what God was like.
But for us, how do we start to get any understanding of what God’s likeness is? I believe it comes down to the fact that we all bear the image of God. Humankind was made in God’s likeness, and although that likeness has become tarnished and covered by grime, as is the case with the images on coins, it can be polished back into its original state, and as this happens we can begin to shine. One commentator writes: We bear God’s likeness, and are therefore made to be more than we ever realised.
This is what happens when we accept God’s rule in our lives. When we give to God what is already his: we give him our lives. He begins to polish us, so that we can shine. And what does that mean? Well, Paul writes to the Thessalonians, commending them on their ability to shine in their world: in every place your faith in God has become known, he says, you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers.
And so we see the image of God in our fellow believers: in the love that they show one another, in the fact they fight for justice and peace…And we can, if we only trust him and let him have his way, see that image in ourselves. We are God’s children, we are made in his likeness. And yes, sometimes that likeness becomes blurred and tarnished, but if we are willing to let God polish us once more, through the sacraments (when we can receive them again!), through the love and acceptance that others show to us, and we in turn show to others, through being inspired, as the Thessalonians were, by the Holy Spirit, then we will truly show the likeness of God to the world. We become so much more than we ever realised.