Image matters in this era we live in. Social media has brought us facebook and instagram filters, among others, that give us the capacity to curate what and how others see us. We could, if we choose, create a whole brand around ourselves for whatever reason, real or imagined, and no one would know the difference. Image sells, look at the power of social influencers on products… The late princess Diana drove fashion trends her whole life, just by simply wearing something we all wanted. Not since the court painters of Europe, where painted images were doctored up from time to time to make a marriage prospect between houses seem more alluring than in reality, have we seen just how important image has become. It's interesting that the week after harvest thanksgiving we are hearing about image, in this case the image of who we are in the world and what that says about what we believe and how we live. And it all comes down to money again, because money speaks.
We meet Jesus again in the midst of conflict. Jesus seems to love conflict aswe continue to meet him in the midst of heated exchanges in this section of Matthew. And it's no wonder, Jesus just this week has entered into Jerusalem and overthrows the money changers in the temple. Jesus sees just how wayward the children of God have become, focusing on their social images, rather than the image of God. Jesus is so agitated because in just a few days he will die, a death he now sees as even more important to bring us back together in unity with God. It's one of those exacerbating moments, you know the type when people around us- despite our best efforts- are just not getting what we are asking them to do, despite how clear we feel we are being in how we ask? That's the frustration level of Jesus this morning, so his comment about a coin is actually about the image it represents rather than the item itself. Give to the emperor what is his and God what is his, then is about image, and whose image we choose to inhabit.
The image of the empire is all around us, it's inescapable. Traffic lights, postal codes, voter registration numbers, social insurance numbers, passports, from the moment of our birth we are registered and numbered. On the surface level, this numbering is important because it creates a unique identifier, our lights keep us safe while driving, our laws give us structure. The empire then is what keeps us safe and in order. That safety and order also form and shape us, because it becomes a lens through which we see our world. Law, order, and punishment dominate our mindscape, which over time breeds fear and leads to stronger laws and stronger punishments to keep us safe. Increased safety and order lead to new products and services to keep us protected, higher hedges around our houses, cameras and more. We slowly start to see the other as foriegn, the neighbour as risky, the unknown as something to protect against, rather than embrace. The empire teaches us to buy, sometimes in excess, items that will keep us living longer, restore our youth, technology to make our lives easier, and while some of these are good, some of them obscure the image we are called to embrace more deeply today. That is the image of God, in whose likeness we are all made.
Bearing the likeness of God feels heavy because of all the baggage it can come with. Images of perfection, saintly lifestyle, no swearing or drinking, piety beyond reproach. Its exhausting, and frankly if that's what bearing the likeness of God is about, then someone else can do it. Thankfully bearing god's likeness is not about perfection, but about purpose and reason. In bearing the likeness of God, we are not God- perfect, saintly, ect, we are deeply human called to live our life with purpose and reason. The purpose and reason we embrace is the kingdom values we ascribe too as followers of Christ. It is these values that take us out into the world, a world in need of purpose and reason today.
Notice how Jesus does not say to overthrow the empire, or to stop paying taxes, or not voting. No. Jesus says to give to the emperor's what is his, and to God what is his. As humans we need laws and structure, so we pay our taxes and follow traffic lights because we enjoy the universal benefits of what they afford us. However, not everything that the empire says is for our universal safety. When the empire says that we can only be happy when we look or act a certain way. That's a lie. When the empire says that degrading the environment are foundational to our economic survival. That's a lie. When the empire says that nationalism is more important than multiculturalism. That's a lie. When the empire says that housing, water, food, and education are commodities rather than fundamental human rights, that's a lie too. It's a lie because it's not universal in its application, there is always a loser. Economic and social advancement must have a purpose and reason to them, they aren't, inherently, reason enough to just do something, because they are actually about people and not just the empire. The empire is made up of many images, human images, made in the likeness of God. And that's what Jesus is saying to us this morning with the coin. We are being reminded that we are stewards of God's image in the world, and likeness we both inhabit in our bodies and in our environment.
Stewardship of God's likeness in our world is about how we act, within our capacities, to reflect the kingdom values here and now. A kingdom we believe is open to all with equal opportunity to thrive, live, and love, under the grace of God. But what does that mean? Well it often means hard work, because it puts us at odds with the world around us, just like Jesus this morning. We could choose to take the easy route in life, to see everything around us as disposable, set here for us to enjoy, abuse, waste, and reap unearned wealth from. This rapacious appetite for the self means that we value disposable commodities over people, faceless speedy delivery over relationships, unearned wealth over hard work. Ouch, Jesus, that's a stinging indictment of our lives. But fear not, this isn't a condemnation this morning but an invitation into a renewed vision of life.
Commodities, the economy, profits and more are not intrinsically evil or bad. Profit driven investment portfolios or clothing are not fundamentally corrupt. How we use them, however, is. Do we invest our money with an expectation of a high return at all costs, or do we invest with social purpose? Do we buy items because they are cheap and easy, or do we buy something because we have a relationship with the seller and support local industry? And that's hard because who doesn't like a good sale? Who is not accustomed to the cheap clothing, and security of a well invested high return investment portfolio? You see, friends, what is at stake here is the kingdom, a kingdom being acted out all around us as we become more aware of the needs of our world and the disarming difference between what we see and what God sees. That vision, God’s vision, is cast here among us every sunday in worship. Where we see, hear, touch, and taste, what it means to live into the likeness of God in our world by choosing to act differently in it not only because of what we receive here, but because of whose likeness we are made in. Image matters, church, money speaks. We are built in God's likeness to be stewards of his creation for the inbreaking of the kingdom, a kingdom with purpose and reason. How will you embrace the likeness of God, grafted into you from the womb, in our world this week seeking to live the kingdom values we practice today?