(I preached this sermon on Sunday, October 18, 2020. It was in response to the Gospel Matthew 22:15-22. You can find the entire service including the sermon on this link.)
In 1989, the camera company Canon released one of the most memorable commercials ever made. It featured a then 19-year-old upstart tennis player known for his rebellious attitude, his outrageous outfits, and his crazy hair – Andre Agassi. The commercial shows Agassi in various poses, hitting a tennis ball, laying around shirtless, driving an open top jeep while running his hand through his wild hair, etc. Intersperced throughout the ad is the product Canon was promoting – the Canon Rebel. But it’s the end of the ad that made Andre Agassi world famous. The commercial was shot in the Nevada desert in Las Vegas and you can see the blurred lights of Vegas in the background. Agassi had been instructed to step out of a white Lamborghini, lower his sunglasses while standing in an all-white suit, and utter the only words Agassi would say for the entire ad as well as the words that would forever follow him throughout his career – he joked in his auto biography that these words would be his epitaph. These three words became the phrase that would haunt him when he failed and lift him up when he won. These three words would also go beyond their attachment to Andre Agassi.
These three words – “Image is everything.”
When I think of today’s encounter that we heard about between Jesus and the Pharisee and the Herodians, the phrase image is everything perfectly sums up this Gospel. And not just the portion we heard today, but really the entire Gospel of Matthew.
The Gospel writer doesn’t shy away from a sketchy image associated with Jesus. The very first thing written in Matthew’s Gospel is the genealogy of Jesus. Verse 1 says, “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” This is language loaded with royalty, faithfulness, and image.
And then verse 2-16 list all the descendants from Abraham to David and from David to Jesus. And if you read this list carefully, what you’ll hear is a unique listing of people who have image problems. People who wouldn’t normally find themselves prominently listed in the genealogy of someone royal. In that list are the mighty, but also the weak and the outcast. In that list are women who are foreigners, prostitutes, and women who are raped and taken from their husbands. There are men who steal and kill. There are good kings and bad kings. And there is a host of people whose names mean very little and who beyond their name being known, we know very little about.
This is how the Gospel of Matthew starts and portrays the image of Jesus. And it follows Jesus throughout the Gospel and his earthly life. I encourage you to scan through the Gospel to see how it plays out. Remember, image is everything.
In the encounter we hear about today, the conflict of Jesus’ image comes to a head. And Jesus turns the criticism of his image that has been following him his entire earthly life on its head and exposes his critics empty image.
But this isn’t a solitary instance. We need to keep this encounter in context. The beginning of Chapter 21 tells us of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem – done with great imagery and pageantry. It’s Palm Sunday and Jesus enters Jerusalem on a colt and a donkey, as foretold through the prophets Isaiah and Zechariah. There is great fanfare. Palms waving. Cheers of Hosanna to the Son of David. The image must have been incredible. Image is everything after all.
And the first place Jesus goes to, we are told, is the temple, where with great fanfare and imagery, Jesus overturns the tables of the money changers and quotes Scripture and shows the true image of what he is about and how it conflicts with the established order of the temple which exploited and oppressed the poor and hungry rather than serve them and feed them. Jesus exposes what the temple authorities’ true image was – no different than Rome. Remember, image is everything.
Jesus then comes back to the temple on Monday of Holy Week and his authority is questioned and he tells parables that make it crystal clear to the Pharisees and the chief priests that he was talking about them, ruining the image they had crafted for themselves – showing it to be a façade that easily crumbled. Remember – image is everything.
And then we get to the this encounter today – the question about paying taxes. The Gospel writer exposes the image of those opposed to Jesus in full light – exposing their true image. We are told that they plotted to entrap Jesus. They speak slick words that are full of excessive praise that they didn’t believe designed to flatter Jesus and have him let down his guard, but their true image shows through. And Jesus knows it. He sees through the photoshopped image they present themselves as. We are told that Jesus was aware of their malice and tears down the façade of passive aggressive fake niceness and empty sincerity when he says, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” Image may be everything. But true image allows us to see clearly.
Jesus says, “show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him the coin. And then he asks the question – “Whose head is this, and whose title?” In other words, what image is this? He turns their trap into a mirror. The trap was believing and proclaiming that image was everything. But false images aren’t everything. They are lies designed to deceive and lead people astray. Image isn’t everything. True image allows us to see clearly.
They answered, “The emperor’s.” And then Jesus shines the light on the whole situation when he says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Which raises the real question that Jesus is asking – what belongs to God and what falls outside of belonging to God?
If God is the creator, then God’s imprint is on everything God creates. There is nothing that doesn’t belong to God. And while that coin might belong to the emperor because it bears his image, guess whose image the emperor bears. Guess who the emperor belongs to – God. How about the Pharisees and the chief priests – Who’s image do they bear? Who do they belong to?
If you have a mirror or a phone that can take a selfie, take it out either now or right after worship. Look at the image that you see. Whose image do you bear? Who do you belong to? You are made in the image of God. You bear God’s image and likeness. When you look at yourself in the mirror or in a picture, you are looking at the image of God. You are seeing Jesus.
But this isn’t just for us – because that wouldn’t be the full picture, it would only be one pixel. Look around you, what do you see? Whose image does the person you encounter bear? Who do they belong to? God. Jesus. The same Jesus who asks the question, asks us – “Whose image is this?”
How about those we disagree with? Jesus asks us – whose image do they bear? Who do they belong to?
How about those in an opposing political party? Whose image do they bear? Who do they belong to?
How about those that financially poorer or wealthier than ourselves? Whose image do they bear? Who do they belong to?
How about those who from another country – regardless of whether they came here legally or illegally. Whose image do they bear?
How about those who are experiencing homelessness? – whose image do they bear?
How about those who are in bondage to a drug or sexual addiction? – Whose image do they bear?
How about those whose sexuality is different from our own – whose image do they bear?
How about those whose skin color is different from our own – whose image do they bear?
Who do they all belong to? God. The same God. The same Jesus who we belong to also. No exceptions. We are intimately linked to all of these people – yes, even our enemies and those we hate – because of the image we all bear. The image that is imprinted on us. The image of God – the only image that matters. Because each of us are pixels in a large photograph that shows the true image of God. And that image is one of love. Love is what we are imprinted with. And that is the image that is shown for all the world to see. And love shows itself in a variety of ways – forgiveness, mercy, grace, welcoming, listening, feeding, giving, and more.
This isn’t anything new though. We hear stories about this all the time. Maybe we’ve even experienced this ourselves. We hear about heroic soldiers who sacrifice their lives in order to save countless lives of their comrades. We hear about first responders who risk it all to save complete strangers, sometimes costing them their own lives in the process. It comes out in stories about responses to natural and human made disasters – even enemies come to the aid of those in need.
Jesus is projecting the image of God for all to see. Let those who have eyes see it. In themselves, in others, in enemies, and in all of creation.
Kelli Trujillo, the editor of Today’s Christian Woman, closed with the following statement when she wrote about the Secret to Loving Your Enemies. She said, “Recognizing the imago dei in my enemies doesn’t magically erase negative feelings that arise, but it does forcibly reorient my perspective—away from my feelings and onto the Cross. Thank the Lord that, as Romans 5:10 says, “Our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies”!
Terrorist, abuser, adulterer . . . sinner. Our indelible, God-given dignity remains. For we each are made in his image—and that will never change.”
I think all of this is best represented in the story of Dirk Willems. He was born in the Netherlands and was baptized as a young man. He later rejected infant baptism and was condemned by the Church which then arrested him. He escaped the prison he was being held in, using rope made out of knotted rags. He climbed out of the prison onto the frozen moat that surrounded the prison. A guard noticed his escape and went after him. Willems easily made it across the frozen moat because he had survived on prison rations and lost weight. But the guard wasn’t so lucky. He broke through the ice and yelled for help as he struggled in the icy water. Willems turned back to save the life of his pursuer, which caused him to be recaptured and held until he was burned at the stake on May 16, 1569.
Image might be everything. But the true image is what matters most – the image we bear. It’s the answer to the question that Jesus asks – Whose image is this? Who do we belong to? Amen.