On today’s Revised Common Lectionary gospel text (Matthew 22:15-22):
In the ancient Near East (which, remember, is the context in which the Bible is written), every major god or deity had its own image, or cult statue, that was set up somewhere in the temple that had been dedicated to that god. This is what scripture is referring to when it talks about a “graven image.” It was widely accepted that, in order to communicate with a particular god or goddess, one could do so through the image, or statue. These images were believed to mediate the presence and power of the various deities on earth.
Besides these graven images, those living in the ancient Near East also held that kings were the primary image – the living image – of god on earth. The idea is that a king was the foremost mediator of the presence and will of the gods from heaven to those living on earth. As such, the king also served a priestly function, in that the king of any nation, big or small, also held the title of high priest for whatever the national religion happened to be. There was no distinction between the sacred and secular roles; as king, a ruler would embody both simultaneously.
The Bible, then, was written within this very real, historical context – but it also turns many of the beliefs of its day on its head. For example, instead of there being many gods or goddesses, it proclaims only one true God, YHWH, Maker of Heaven and Earth, and God is not contained in a statue, or image, that’s made by human hands. Yet what is perhaps most radical is scripture’s assertion that it isn’t just royalty – kings and priests – that manifest God’s presence on earth. The opening chapters of Genesis instead declare a new truth: that the entire human race mediates the image of God. Young or old, male or female, all skin colors and languages and socioeconomic class – each and every single person bears the image of God and, thereby, declares God in the world, situation, and experiences in which he or she lives.
This background is crucial if we really want to understand this somewhat strange gospel text for the week. When the Pharisees bring Jesus the coin that is used for tax that has the head of the emperor on it they are, in essence, bringing him a graven image, one that is meant to communicate the authority and power of the emperor in the land. Jesus knows they’re not really concerned about taxes; this has nothing to do with money. It has to do with religion, and power – and Jesus is having none of it. ‘Go ahead,’ Jesus is essentially saying. ‘Give your money to the emperor. That’s not what God, the true God, is concerned about. God cares more about your hearts, your lifestyles, how you carry that divine image in and through you than God cares about a coin.’ He is making the claim that this is all temporary, really. Things like graven images are futile because they’re not real, and the day will come when all will be awakened to that fact.
What is real, though, is the image of God – the living image, in the face of every man, woman, and child throughout the world. This past week, we (the collective we) have been flooded with photos and videos of the horrors taking place in modern Israel/Palestine. There have been gruesome photos and videos of image-bearers, both Israeli and Palestinian, being subjected to unspeakable violence and dehumanization. The international community, one could argue, has known about the pressure cooker that is Gaza for decades. Over the years, civilians living in the walled-off section of the country have experienced terror, bloodshed, and dehumanization under conditions that the UN Special Rapporteur for the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967 has called “apartheid.” They are not nameless, faceless, graven images; these are living and breathing human beings who carry the divine image with them. Furthermore, it has only been ninety years – less than a century! – since the beginning of the Holocaust, the inhumane and evil systematic extermination of approximately six million Jews. They were not nameless, faceless, graven images; they were living and breathing human beings who carried the divine image with them, and their genocide has had far-reaching effects on the Jewish community even today, with antisemitism contributing to the oppression of Jews worldwide.
We, as a species, have a terrible tendency to place our trust in the wrong images or, even worse, to willingly choose them. Images of money, power, politics, security, strategy, authority, success, and control have become our gods, and we have forsaken the very face of God in the human beings we see before us. We have dehumanized Palestinian residents of Gaza, assigning them images of our choosing: savages. Animals. Barely human. And we have dehumanized Jews as well, assigning them current images based on antisemitic tropes like greedy or disloyal, while Nazi Germany used images like rats, dirty, and impure. Yet every single image we place upon others, besides that of a beloved child of God, is wrong. To quote St. Catherine of Siena, “The soul is in God, and God is in the soul. God is closer to us than water is to a fish.” If we want to see God, we can do so simply by looking in the mirror. Yet let us not forget that when we turn on the news and see a wailing Palestinian or Israel, fraught with suffering and fear, we see God, too.