Understanding Image

Understanding Image

Though perhaps not an original observation, we are a people who can become preoccupied with images and the general impression we make upon others. And this can be true even when we think we’re immune from it. Perhaps one of the most amusing examples of this is found in the 2006 movie, The Devil Wears Prada. In one scene Miranda Priestly, the protagonist “devil” played by Meryl Streep who heads up a fashion magazine, is trying to decide between two similar-looking belts for an outfit. Her new intern, Andy Sachs (played by Anne Hathaway) giggles as she watches on and when asked if she’s found something to be answers funny answers, “No. No, no. Nothing’s… You know, it’s just that both those belts look exactly the same to me. You know, I’m still learning about all this stuff and, uh….” And this is when Miranda tears into her naïve, cerebral, dowdily-dressed, not-into-fashion intern:

This… stuff’? Oh. Okay. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select… I don’t know… that lumpy blue sweater, for instance because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise. It’s not lapis. It’s actually cerulean. And you’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent… wasn’t it who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here. And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it, uh, filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff.[1]

Something to think about, no? Even when we think we’re not being affected or manipulated by the image-makers in our society, we no doubt are. Fitzsimons Allison, a now-retired Episcopal bishop, similarly observes: “Celebrity idols have the power to change fashions in clothes, hair styles, and behavior because the underlying dynamic in worship is that we tend to become like what we respect, what we honor, what we deem worthy of praise.”[2] It’s challenging to consider that we’re affected by the celebrities of our day because, at some level, we may want to become like them—to have what they have—be it power, popularity, or prestige. And this, Bishop Allison suggests, is akin to what happens when we worship.

“Since we tend to become what we worship,” he notes, “and since we were created in the image of God, the commandment not to worship ‘any other gods but me’ is not an expression of the jealousy of God for God’s sake, but for ours. To bow down before and to become like anything or anyone but God himself is ultimately for us to begin to be recreated in some other image.”[3]

This is part of the reason why our passage this morning is so important—because it is addressing the most important image ever made by God, that is, his own in us.

During Jesus’ last week on earth, as was true many times in his life, his authority was challenged by various groups of leaders. One of the ways Jesus responded to their challenges was by means of parables that initially drew them in but, upon realizing that they were often the negative “exhibit A” of the parables—that they were the ones being equated with those who did wrong in the parables—they then sought to find ways to arrest him.[4]

And in our morning’s passage this is where Jesus yet again found himself. Having just told the parable of the wedding banquet we considered last week that told how the invited guests who had rejected the king’s invitation to his son’s wedding banquet were destroyed for brushing aside the invitation and for even mistreating and killing the king’s servants, the religious leaders who were identified with these violent and ungrateful guests reacted as stated in verse 15: “Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words.” If Jesus was going to indict the Pharisees and others by means of the parables he taught, the Pharisees weren’t going to take this lying down. No, they would try to beat Jesus at his own game and see if they could find a way to trick him by means of the very words he used.[5] So, starting in verse 16 we read how the Pharisees then

sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher, they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”

Now to better appreciate the quandary the Pharisees have set up, it helps if we understand the relationship they had with the Herodians. Whereas the Pharisees were a scrupulous Jewish sect committed to observing God’s law over and above secular law, the Herodians were influential Jews who supported the reign of King Herod Antipas[6] in particular and Roman governance in general.[7] In other words, these two groups had opposing views of the role of government. They did not like, agree with, or get along with each other. So it’s interesting to see that though the Herodians and Pharisees were far from being natural allies, there are a few mentions in Scripture of their joining forces against Jesus. In one instance, after Jesus healed a man with a shriveled hand on the Sabbath, we’re told, “Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.”[8] On another occasion, while alone with his disciples, Jesus specifically warned them, “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”[9] So Jesus was aware of the fact that these two groups sought to discredit and harm him and his disciples.

Returning to our account in Matthew, there are a few items worth noting about this brief exchange. First, as adversaries of Jesus, it’s unlikely that the opening statement was sincere: To state initially, “we know that you are a man of integrity;” and then, “you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth;” and finally, “You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are,” all seem to be part of the set-up as they sought to present themselves as genuine seekers of Rabbi Jesus’ wisdom. So when the Pharisees “went out and laid plans to trap him in his words” (verse 15) part of that plan may have included this seemingly innocent set-up as their disciples and the Herodians first approached Jesus.

But second, knowing that the Pharisees and Herodians didn’t see eye-to-eye on the relationship that Judaism should have with the Roman Empire and therefore that they didn’t agree with each other about the question they were asking Jesus, helps us see the “gotcha’!” nature of the question they posed in verse 17: “Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” The Herodians would have replied by stating that of course it was right to pay imperial tax to Caesar whereas the Pharisees would have replied that absolutely it was not right to do so. As one source states, “Taxes were a volatile issue in Israel. All of Rome’s subjects, including the people of Israel, labored under the empire’s heavy taxation. [Further] Some Jews believed that paying any tax to pagan rulers contradicted God’s lordship over his people.”[10]

So for Jesus to say that it was right to pay the imperial tax—again, a tax levied on subject peoples, including the Jews, but not levied on Roman citizens—may have suggested that Jesus was on the side of a government viewed as oppressing the Jewish people. This answer would have pleased the the Herodians but not the Pharisees. But for Jesus to say that it wasn’t right to pay the imperial tax could have been viewed as an expression of anarchy or treason. And this answer, conversely, would have pleased the disciples of the Pharisees but not the Herodians. So the Pharisees who had gathered these two groups together no doubt thought they had placed Jesus between the proverbial rock and hard place. How could he possibly address the question posed without incriminating himself in the process? Well, fortunately, this wasn’t Jesus’ first rodeo (so to speak). So we read in verse 18, “But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, ‘You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?’” Jesus saw through the initial flattery and understood immediately the sinister intent that lay behind their question.

So after letting them know that he knew the game they were playing, Jesus made a request of them—again, it’s a rare occasion for him ever to answer directly a question posed to him. Instead he said to them in verse 19: “Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” And when they had brought him a denarius, a Roman coin, he asked them, verse 20: “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” and they replied that it was Caesar’s. Then, rather than enter into the debate of whether or not one should pay the imperial tax, Jesus stated simply in verse 21, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” With this simple statement, Jesus put all of life in perspective. Money is a material convenience used to live out our lives as citizens on earth, our temporary abode. So if coins are inscribed with Caesar’s image, then Caesar should be given his due.

But what is more to the point is the second half of Jesus’ statement: And give back “to God what is God’s.” Having re-framed the hypocritical question posed by the disciples of the Pharisees and Herodians from one about paying the imperial tax to one about image-bearing, Jesus made a far more important point that they clearly caught because we read in verse 22, “When they heard this , they were amazed. So they left him and went away.” Jesus knew that these two different Jewish groups would both have been conversant with the very Scriptures that he believed and taught. And one of the first and most fundamental truths stated in the very first chapter of the very first book of those Scriptures states:

26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” 27 So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s—and to God what is God’s. The Scriptures tell us that our God and Creator made us, male and female, in his image. If a coin bearing the image of Caesar indicates that Caesar should be paid his due, how much more should humans bearing the image of the God who made them pay him his due.

For we didn’t make ourselves. Life wasn’t our idea. We weren’t given a choice in the matter of whether or not we wanted to live in the first place. No, life has been bestowed upon us by the Lord and Giver of Life who made not only us but also the entire world of nature we see around us. But whereas Scripture tells us,

“God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind,”[11] and “the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds,”[12]

of all the things God created only humanity was said to be made in the image of the God who made them. Brothers and sisters, do you realize what this means? Our very existence points to the God who made us. As those who have been made in the image of God; as those who bear the inscription of the God who made us; we, like a divine coin, owe everything to God, whose image we bear. From the beginning God created us for relationship with himself for he made us in his image; and from the beginning God created us for relationship with each other for of all that he created, only humans, male and female, were made in his image. So the relationship we’re able to have with our Maker and with one another exceeds that which we’re able to have with any other part of the world God created. Though upon making Adam and Eve, God charged them to care for the world in which he’d placed them with what we now refer to as the creation or cultural mandate, telling them to “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground,”[13] God’s image bearers as image bearers were made with a unique capacity to know their Maker and one another.

Unfortunately, as we know, the story doesn’t end there for sometime after God made our first parents and charged them to care for the extraordinary world he had made, Adam and Eve damaged that divine image by disobeying God, their Maker, with devastating results:

Whereas formerly they had experienced unbroken fellowship with God, now they hid from him;[14]

Whereas formerly they were naked before one another and felt no shame,[15] now “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves;”[16]

Whereas formerly Adam realized that animal companionship couldn’t compare with human companionship as he exclaimed, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”[17] upon God creating Eve, he now blamed Eve for his transgression;[18]

Whereas formerly Eve, along with Adam, had been charged with caring for God’s creation, she now blamed a part of that creation for her transgression.[19]

So the beautiful world God had created with man and woman, his image bearers, reflecting his lordship as they cared for that world in reliance upon him and each other, went from beautiful to chaotic. For rather than listening to their Maker who desired only truth and life and flourishing for them, they had listened instead to a part of the fallen creation, Satan, that ancient serpent,[20] who desired only lies[21] and death and destruction for them.

Fortunately for us, not even in the beginning did God give up on his image-bearers for not even the Fall was able to remove that image from them. Even in Genesis we see murder being prohibited by God on the grounds that “in the image of God has God made mankind”[22] and so we mustn’t destroy anything bearing God’s image for it belongs to God. Though the Fall may have muddied and distorted the original royal image in which we were made, nothing could prevent God from accomplishing his purposes. So we see that even at the time of the Fall, as God was judging the serpent that had temporarily lured his image-bearers away from him, God foretold of One who would one day crush the serpent’s head[23]—and this One we know as Christ Jesus, the Son of God, sent in the flesh to die and rise for those belonging to him that through him, we, too, might conquer sin, death, and the devil[24]—that we, too, might overcome the effects of the Fall through the One who is eternal life and offers us this very eternal life in himself.[25]

And now, for all who know Christ, it is to his image, God in human flesh, that we are now being restored. Paul states, “those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son….”[26] This conformity to Christ’s image is our destiny. God’s plan never changed. He made us in his image and even when we disobeyed he provided a way through himself for our broken images to to be conformed to his. Again Paul states “And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.[27] Again that heavenly man is none other that Christ Jesus, our Savior and Lord. As a result of our redemption—of God in Christ paying the price with his life to reclaim us as his own—we have now been called to set aside our lives for him. “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.”[28]

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s; give to God what is God’s. If giving to Caesar means that we are to carry out our obligations as citizens of this earth, then for those of us who seek to follow Christ, our Savior and Lord, what does it mean to give to God what is God’s? It means that if we belong to Christ, our lives—our values—our priorities should reflect his. As Paul exhorts, “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”[29] And, again, “22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness….  32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”[30] As God in Christ gave himself up for us, so we should give ourselves up for others; as God in Christ forgave us all our sins—past, present, and future—so we should forgive each other, with kindness and compassion. We shouldn’t live according to the deceitful and deluded values of our formerly fallen natures or of those within our society who have power and prestige, but should live instead according to the righteous and holy natures we’ve now been given by Christ Jesus himself.

And if all of this seems too much to ask, we should take heart because we’re not being asked to live this way on our own, of our own strength. Notice how Paul upholds both human and divine responsibility when he says, on the one hand, “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self,” and then, on the other hand, immediately adds that this new self “is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.”[31] This grammatical construction is referred to as a “divine passive.” In other words if we ask by whom this new self is being renewed, the answer is “by God.” Paul uses this construct elsewhere as he proclaims, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”[32] Sisters and brothers, we are being transformed by God into his image, by his Spirit who indwells us.[33] By God’s Spirit, we are being made like him. This is our destiny. This is how much God loves us. This is how much God desires a relationship with us. He simply will not; he simply cannot give up on his image-bearers.

And wonder of wonders, this transformation will one day be complete when we see him face-to-face. Not only does Paul bear witness to this but so too does John. In I Corinthians 13 Paul reminds us, “now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”[34] For now our walk is by faith, but one day it will be by sight. John, too, exhorts us, “Dear friends [or “beloved”], now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”[35] This is what Thomas Kelly, the author of our opening hymn, Praise the Savior, points to in the first and last stanzas: 1. Praise the Savior, ye who know Him! Who can tell how much we owe Him? Gladly let us render to Him All we are and have; 4. Then we shall be where we would be; Then we shall be what we should be; Things that are not now, nor could be, Then shall be our own.

In the meantime, let us give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. Let us remember that our money, our possessions, and whatever gifts or abilities we may have are to be used to reflect not the values of our age, but the eternal values God in Christ has shown us in himself.

As we have been made in God’s image, and as God by his Holy Spirit is re-making us into the image of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, let us ever be mindful that our very existence is to point others to the God who made us all. So let us allow our lives, our values, our priorities to reflect this as we interact with each other and lovingly care for every image-bearer who crosses our path on a daily basis. Let us see in others all they can be, all they could be, as we gladly render to Christ all we are and have.

Let us pray.

[1] Quotation found in <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0458352/quotes>

[2] C. FitzSimons Allison, The Cruelty of Heresy: An Affirmation of Christian Orthodoxy, Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1994, p. 69. Emphasis added.

[3] Ibid., p. 71. Emphases added.

[4] E.g., Matthew 21:45–46: 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. 46 They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.

[5] Mark’s Gospel places this account following the Parable of the Tenants, as does Luke. Mark 12:13–17: 13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. 17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him. Luke 20:20–26: 20 Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor. 21 So the spies questioned him: “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. 22 Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” 23 He saw through their duplicity and said to them, 24 “Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. 25 He said to them, “Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” 26 They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent.

[6] King Herod Antipas was the ruler over Galilee

[7] Zondervan NIV Study Bible note on Mark 3:6. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the Herodians were “called by the Rabbis ‘Boethusians,’ as adherents of the family of Boethus, whose daughter Mariamne was one of the wives of King Herod, and whose sons were successively made high priests by him.” <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7605-herodians>

[8] Mark 3:6.

[9] Mark 8:15. Matthew earlier indicated Jesus stating a variant of these words on the same occasion, Matthew 16:6: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the Herodians followed the Sadducees in their opposition to the Pharisees and therefore were often associated with the Sadducees <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7605-herodians>. This identification may explain the discrepancy in the two Gospel accounts.

[10] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Matthew 22:17. Emphasis added.

[11] Genesis 1:21.

[12] Genesis 1:25.

[13] Genesis 1:28.

[14] Genesis 3:8: Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

[15] Genesis 2:25: Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.

[16] Genesis 3:7.

[17] Genesis 2:23a.

[18] Genesis 3:12: The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

[19] Genesis 3:13: The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

[20] In his Revelation, John identifies the serpent of Genesis 3 with Satan, that ancient serpent. Revelation 12:9: The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him; Revelation 20:2: He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.

[21] Jesus is the speaker in John 8:44: You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

[22] Genesis 9:6b.

[23] This is the proto-evangelion, the first hint of the Gospel in Scripture.

[24] Hebrews 2:14–18: 14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. 16 For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. 17 For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

[25] John 11:25: Jesus said to [Martha just before raising her and Mary’s brother, Lazarus, from death], “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

[26] Romans 8:29a.

[27] I Corinthians 15:49.

[28] Ephesians 1:4.

[29] Ephesians 5:1–2.

[30] Ephesians 4:22–24, 32.

[31] Colossians 3:9–10.

[32] 2 Corinthians 3:8.

[33] E.g., 1 Corinthians 3:16: Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?; 2 Timothy 1:14: Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.

[34] I Corinthians 13:23.

[35] I John 3:2.

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