Remembering Whose you are
It fascinates me that though cameras are only a recent invention, we can still have a reasonable idea about how ancient people looked through sculpture and portraiture. This is a picture of Tiberius Caesar:
It is a coin like this that may have been used as an illustration of one of Jesus’ most profound teachings on human beings as the image bearers of God.
I’ve got to be honest, I’ve always thought Matthew 22:21 (see also Mark 12:17, Luke 20:25) was a ‘tithing scripture.’ For the record, I was taught by my parents to practice tithing and have done so for as long as I can remember. I strongly believe in and advocate the principle of tithing and have known God’s provision and constant blessing on my finances. But I think that the account in Matthew 22 is about far more than tithing (no less perhaps, but far more). And I think that Jesus’ hearers knew it.
The Pharisees, we are told, had planned to trap Jesus in his words (Mt 22:15). The trap was a good one. Nobody likes paying taxes—then or now. But for the Jews in Jesus’ day, who were under a harsh and repressive Roman regime; who remembered the glory days of their people, and who longed for those days to be restored; who deeply resented any people or nation who would presume to exercise lordship over God’s people, Roman taxation was an issue that evoked deep hatred. Indeed, many of these people had hopes that Jesus was the one to restore their fortunes; a political and military messiah that would orchestrate, at long last, the overthrow of the Romans and set things to rights again.
So, as I say, the trap was a particularly good one.
“Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
Would Jesus be the one to speak out against Roman tyranny, or would he capitulate to the status quo? If he spoke out and condemned taxation, he would sign his own death warrant, as the Pharisees knew, but if he affirmed taxation in any way, he would lose the influence with the people that the they so deeply coveted.
Before he responded directly to the question, Jesus made it clear that he knew their game: “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?”
He then asked to be shown a coin. “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” Jesus asked.
“Caesars.” They could say nothing else. Their trap was already thwarted, but they were totally unprepared for what came next. It astonished them (v. 22).
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
There are two reasons I don’t believe this verse is talking about tithing. First, the Pharisees were already good tithers. So Jesus’ response, if it was an instruction to tithe would not have astonished them. But second, all of the money had Caesar’s image and inscription on it. It was not as if 90% of the coins had Caesar’s picture, and the remaining 10% had God’s picture. That’s just silly right? You can’t represent God, at least not on a coin. And that’s precisely the point of Jesus’ teaching.
There was no dispute that the coins belonged to Caesar, because he had placed his image on them. The question that Jesus did not ask, but which was implicit both in the question that he did ask and in his twofold conclusion, is this:
“And whose image do you bear? Whose inscription? Who has stamped his name on your life and written his laws in your heart?”
It is in this context that both Jesus’ conclusion and the Pharisees’ response make sense. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s—the thing on which he has stamped his image and inscription, but give to God what is God’s—the thing on which HE has stamped his own image and inscription. Your very selves.
The Pharisees were amazed, and, I believe, conscience stricken. As James was later to accuse, they would praise their Lord and Father but in the same breath curse a man who was made in God’s image (James 3:9). And not just any one of Adam’s sons in whom God’s image was marred (though never erased) by the Fall, but God’s very own Son who resembled and represented his Father perfectly and in whom the Image is renewed.
I want Jesus’ implicit question to be heard loud and clear as you read this:
Whose image do you bear? Because the One whose image you bear is the one to whom you belong. Tragically, too many of us vainly try to bear the image of other human beings because of their fame, or position or notoriety. That will just wear you out and let you down. There is only One Image that we are called to bear. And we can only find our true selves in the pursuit of bearing it well. Here’s why:
You have been destined to bear it. Romans 8:29 tells us that “. . .those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness [that is, the image] of his Son. . .”
God has destined you to bear his Image. And the good news is that question of whether you will (continue to) bear the marred image through Adam or the renewed image through Christ does not depend on your effort but on whether you choose to find your identity in Adam or in Christ. By the way, whether you know it or not, these are the only two options ultimately, and, well, the default is Adam.
If I choose to find my identity in Adam, I’ll say something like, “Well I’m just a man. I’ll do my best to be a good person. Nobody’s perfect, right?”
But if I choose to find my identity in Christ, I’ll say instead, “I am a child of God, and thus a prince. I am totally new in Christ.”
As you look in the mirror each morning, don’t be tempted to say “I’m just. . .” You bear His Image! And you are called to represent him to your world; to multiply his character and influence and dominion throughout the earth. And as you look into the faces of others, never forget that regardless of who they are or what they’ve done or whether they even know it or not, they too have intrinsic value and worth because he has inscribed his name on their lives. They two are marked with God’s very own image. And it might just be your job to let them know.