Reflection – Dan Spragg
Whose Image do you choose?
We have to know that there was no way Jesus could answer the question with either a yes
or a no. That is what they were wanting, but he knew that. ‘Why are you putting me to the
test, you hypocrites?..’ At the point in Matthew’s gospel we are in, Jesus is in the last week
of his life. It is during the week of the Passover festival, what we call ‘Holy Week’ – the week
before Easter. To say that the tension was beginning to brew is putting it too mildly. More
accurately things are escalating rather rapidly! This question was posed to Jesus as part of
an ongoing argument with the Religious and Cultural Elites that contained escalating
amounts of antagonism. Jesus has been ruthless in exposing their hypocrisy and they are
out for blood! Jesus’ time was literally running out. So, for him to answer the question
about whether it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor with a yes or a no really was going
to put him up the creek without a paddle. A ‘yes’ would have put him wildly at odds with
his Jewish people – the story takes place in the Temple – that’s important – there would be a
good number of Jewish people present. A ‘no’ to the question would have got him arrested
for treason against the Roman Emperor! In a situation that is essentially life or death, what
line does Jesus take? Neither!
Let’s think about this for a moment. Jesus is in the Jewish temple where he has been
teaching during the Passover festival. Roman coins were not allowed in the Jewish temple.
The Pharisees along with the Herodians came to him to try and trap him and during the
discussion they produced a Roman coin – while in the temple… So, the religious leaders of
the day have just broken one of their own laws while trying to trick Jesus into breaking
another… I think they leave amazed because they’re starting to get the picture that getting
rid of this guy was going to be more work than they’d thought! I love that he doesn’t give
them a yes or no but rather a quite open-ended answer pointing out their own hypocrisy
and the lengths they were beginning to show they were willing to go to in order to get rid of
him. I also love that his answer is not really an answer but more of an exposing of who they
truly were, what their motives really were. Simply by producing the coin, the leaders have
fallen into their own trap revealing in front of everyone present at the temple where their
true allegiances lay. His answer is also not really condemning the practice of paying taxes
nor is it a capitulation to the empire of Rome. It is almost, and I quite like this too,
suggesting that these coin things are no big deal… ‘sure, pay your taxes, whatever… there
are quite obviously more important things to be concerned about…’ (E.g. Why are you
trying to silence me? Where does your allegiance lie?) Perhaps, we could infer, that Jesus is
saying in the Kingdom of God, money is not a currency by which things are ordered and
allegiance is not determined by power or profit.
It’s common knowledge that putting an image on a coin or a note shows whose currency it
is, the country it belongs in. Stamping the coin with the head of the Emperor showed that
this was the currency of Rome. This coin showed it belonged to their society, to their way of
ordering things, it showed the reach of their hand as an occupying military superpower as
well. The Roman coin could almost be described as propaganda. We write our names on
things to show that they belong to us – it is in a way our attaching our ‘image’ to it to show
that it is ours. Now this overwhelmingly reminds me of Genesis 1:26 where God said, ‘let us
make humankind in our image and likeness…’ from this, as humans, we have understood
ourselves in the world as the representatives of the divine. Our uniqueness is that we have
the ability to act as God’s stewards of the world and all that is within it.
Jesus says to his opponents, ‘Give to God what belongs to God…’ When we are living into
God’s way in the world as the bearers of God’s image what might this say about what
belongs to God? If coins are not the currency of God’s way it might be that our lives and our
living are how we show what we truly believe belongs to God. Whose image is on the coin?
Sure, Jesus hints, go with that. But whose image do we ourselves find located and
‘stamped’ within us? This might suggest that our whole selves are what we truly are to give
to God whether or not we have coins in our pockets.
A story I’ve shared before from Irish Philosopher and Theologian Peter Rollins is just so
good that I really do feel I need to share it again. It is called, ‘Being the Resurrection.’ and I
think it is super helpful for what we are considering today.
Late that evening a group of unknown disciples packed their few belongings and left
for a distant shore, for they could not bear to stay another moment in the place
where their Messiah had just been crucified. Weighed down with sorrow, they left
that place, never to return. Instead they travelled a great distance in search of a land
that they could call home. After months of difficult travel, they finally happened upon
an isolated area that was ideal for setting up a new community. Here they found
fertile ground, clean water, and a nearby forest from which to harvest material
needed to build shelter. So, they settled there, founding a community far from
Jerusalem, a community where they vowed to keep the memory of Christ alive and
live in simplicity, love, and forgiveness, just as he had taught them.
The members of this community lived in great solitude for over a hundred years,
spending their days reflecting on the life of Jesus and attempting to remain faithful to
his ways. And they did all this despite the overwhelming sorrow in their heart.
But their isolation was eventually broken when, early one morning, a small band of
missionaries reached the settlement. These missionaries were amazed at the
community they found. What was most startling to them was that these people had
no knowledge of the resurrection and the ascension of Christ, for they had left
Jerusalem before his return from the dead on the third day. Without hesitation, the
missionaries gathered together all the community members and recounted what had
occurred after the imprisonment and bloody crucifixion of their Lord.
That evening there was a great festival in the camp as people celebrated the news of
the missionaries. Yet, as the night progressed, one of the missionaries noticed that
the leader of the community was absent. This bothered the young man, so he set out
to look for this respected elder. Eventually he found the community’s leader crouched
low in a small hut on the fringe of the village, praying and weeping.
“Why are you in such sorrow?” asked the missionary in amazement. “Today is a time
for great celebration.”
“It may indeed be a day for great celebration, but this is also a day of sorrow,” replied
the elder, who remained crouched on the floor. “Since the founding of this community
we have followed the ways taught to us by Christ. We pursued his ways faithfully
even though it cost us dearly, and we remained resolute despite the belief that death
had defeated him and would one day defeat us also.”
The elder slowly got to his feet and looked the missionary compassionately in the
“Each day we have forsaken our very lives for him because we judged him wholly
worthy of the sacrifice, wholly worthy of our being. But now, following your news, I
am concerned that my children and my children’s children may follow him, not
because of his radical life and supreme sacrifice, but selfishly, because his sacrifice will
ensure their personal salvation and eternal life.”
With this the elder turned and left the hut, making his way to the celebrations that
could be heard dimly in the distance, leaving the missionary crouched on the floor.
Rollins writes in his commentary on the parable that, “While the community described
above knew nothing of the literal Resurrection, there is a sense in which they affirmed the
reality of the Resurrection in a more radical way than many of those who confess such a
belief… It is in this dedicated commitment to Christ that one can say that the Resurrection is
truly made manifest… Here Jesus is testified to as present in the life and actions of the
I wonder if this is what Paul was trying to get at in Thessalonians when he encouraged the
church there to ‘be imitators’ of Christ.
Which I think leaves us with a question. We can know in our heads whose image we
supposedly bear but it can be harder to know this in our hearts, to be confident in God’s
presence and life with us. But, as we live, we do have a choice, and the question is, whose
image is the one we would rather imitate and give ourselves over to? The image of the
emperor – hypocrisy, power, greed, oppression, trickery, empire… or, the image of God,
Christ in us – abundance, life, beauty, generosity, humility; love, joy, peace, patience,
kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control? The question really is, as we live as Jesus
followers in a world full of growing tensions, massive complexities, urgent issues, and many
forces vying for our allegiance – whose image do we want to reveal to the world?
1 Being the Resurrection, a parable by Peter Rollins in his book, The Orthodox Heretic, p67-70