An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Whose Image is This?

A sermon on Matthew 22:15-22 & Exodus 33:12-23 by Nathan Nettleton
With financial systems and money dominating the daily news like never before, it is not a bad time to looking to Jesus to see what he might have to say about money and our relationship to it. For most of us, me included, the technicalities of the global finance systems and what’s going wrong with them at present are beyond comprehension. When I hear experts talking about how banks are having to pay more to buy money, I quickly get lost and bewildered. Paying money to buy money doesn’t add up in my brain, but I realise that it is a lot more complicated than I understand. Much of the money that is supposedly being lost doesn’t really exist in real terms; it is little more than the value put on confidence, and now confidence is out the window. But the flow on effects are all too real. Once confidence is out the window, decisions are made that affect the lives of ordinary people. Employers panic and cut back their workforces, real people find themselves out of work, and nobody is taking on new staff until there is some kind of recovery.

This financial system crisis is prompting questions about whether we have put to much faith in a system which has dodgy foundations and is built on sand. Again, much of the analysis is way beyond my expertise, but one of the themes I hear emerging is the extent to which the system is built on greed and fear. I’m not sure if I’ve got it right, but it is something about how greed and fear are the two sentiments that drive the system, one way or the other, and that it is the relative balance of greed and fear at any given moment that dictates the health or ill-health of the market. That’s a disturbing image. Even some of the secular economists seem disturbed by it, but for us, as followers of Jesus, it sets all sorts of alarm bells ringing.

Before I get to the words of Jesus from tonight’s gospel reading, I want to make an oblique link to the reading from Exodus. There was nothing obvious about money in tonight’s extract, but tonight’s extract is a follow-up to last week’s story of the golden calf. Tonight we heard God and Moses renegotiating a working relationship in the aftermath of the golden calf incident. And the golden calf incident, in many ways, was an acting out of the people’s desire for some valuable material thing to put their trust in. The whole western financial system can readily be seen as a global worshipping of a golden calf. And at present, the golden calf has fallen over and the people are in panic. We have bowed down before the golden altar of greed and fear, and it has imploded and left us feeling vulnerable and exposed and with nothing to trust or believe in. Like Israel and Moses, it is time for us to re-negotiate terms with God, the God who is free to be gracious to anyone he wishes, even those who have abandoned God for golden calves and sub-prime mortgage markets.

Perhaps we can listen for some of the terms of such a re-negotiation in what Jesus has to say about money in answer to the questioning by the Pharisees. The Pharisees are not, of course, much interested in Jesus’ views about money. They are trying to get rid of him, so they just want to trap him into saying something that will get him into trouble. They think they’ve set the perfect trap here. “What do you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” We are talking about the emperor of a very unpopular foreign occupation power, so if Jesus says, “Yes, pay the taxes,” he will get himself offside with a large percentage of the ordinary people. But if he says, “No, don’t pay the taxes,” he will bring down the power of Rome on his head. The perfect trap. Only when Jesus springs the trap, it is his inquisitors that get caught in it.

“Show me the coin used for the tax.” And the Pharisees produce the coin. Snap! They are caught already. This incident took place in the temple precinct; a sacred place. The Roman coin with the image of the emperor and the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, high priest,” was considered blasphemous by faithful Jews. It could not be used inside the temple, which was why there were money changers plying their trade there. So the fact that the Pharisees were able to produce the blasphemous coin already identified them as complicit participants in the Roman financial system. They have walked into their own trap. And Jesus is not letting them off the hook. “Whose head is this, and whose title?” he asks. “Come on, say it. Name before everybody the blasphemous graven image you have brought into the temple.” “The emperor’s,” they guiltily reply.

“Well,” says Jesus. “If this blasphemy belongs to Caesar, you take it out of here and give it to Caesar. But give to God what belongs to God.” And there is something going on in this answer that I’ve often overlooked, but I was reading some commentary from an early Christian teacher this week and discovered something that the early Christians recognised about what Jesus is saying. There are images in both halves of what Jesus says. Caesar has required that his image be imprinted on the coins, but God has imprinted his image on us human beings. One image is blasphemous; the other image is to the glory of God. There is no law against tossing back to Caesar the blasphemous image that belongs to him, but the meaning and purpose of life is in uncovering and offering to God the glorious image which has been imprinted on us.

There is, in Jesus’s answer, a recognition that we are going to have to deal with money sometimes. We cannot flee the world and have nothing to do with its economy or its systems of trade and finance. We do have to deal with money, but we don’t have to make a golden calf of it and give ourselves over to it. In our congregational covenant, we recognise that the call to non-conformity with the world includes a commitment to resist the legitimising of greed, selfishness, and exploitation. And if they are the very things on which the global financial systems are built, then our call is to untangle ourselves from it as much as we can. We cannot refuse to ever handle money or pay our bills and taxes, but we can admit that we too are enmeshed in the ways of darkness, and so seek one another’s support in breaking free, handling money only as a simple and generous life requires, and avoiding giving time, energy and attention to its pursuit and accumulation. “Where your investments are, there will be your heart also,” says Jesus.

Our covenant also acknowledges the call to offer ourselves wholly to God and to one another. And as we consider that, perhaps we can hear Jesus saying, “Whose image is this on this life? The image of God, no less. So take your beautiful and wonderful self, this reflection of the glory of God, and offer yourself to the God who has made you so lovingly, and in God, give yourselves to one another and to the world for the life of the world. The collapsing economy, built as it is on greed and fear, has no place for selfless generous giving or for the love that casts out all fear. But the economy of God is built only on love and generous giving, and it is to the economy of God that we are called to give ourselves.

I’m not pretending for a moment that none of us will be scarred by the collapse of the golden calf and the systems of worship and investment it demanded. We live in its world, and what happens there impacts on us too. But let us commit ourselves to allowing whatever hits we take to question us about the nature and extent of our relationship with the golden calf and with the blasphemous image. And let’s commit ourselves to supporting one another in disentangling ourselves, tossing back what belongs to Caesar, and offering ourselves wholly to God, and to trusting God to hold us when the systems collapse around us and we cannot hold ourselves.


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