WHOSE IMAGE? – Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 24, Year A; Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A (RC)

October 22, 2023

Revised Common Lectionary
Exodus 33:12-23 or Isaiah 45:1-7
Psalm 99 or Psalm 96:1-9 (10-13)
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

Lectionary for Mass (RC)
Isaiah 45:1, 4-6
Psalm 96:1, 3, 4-5, 7-8, 9-10 (7b)
1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b
Matthew 22:15-21

Canada and the United States share many things in common. Yet one rather obscure difference between the two countries involves images that appear on their coins. In the United States, most coins show likenesses of past U.S. presidents—all of them dead. Canada’s coins, on the other hand, bear the image of the reigning British monarch, who is also the Sovereign of Canada. Currently the Canadian Mint is in the process of replacing images of Queen Elizabeth II with those of her successor, King Charles III—who is very much alive.

One of the many ways that the Jews of Jesus’s time were constantly reminded that they lived under the thumb of their imperial occupiers was the image of the emperor on the coins that they used to pay their taxes to Rome. Jews of course eschewed the making of images, in keeping with God’s command. Not only was Caesar depicted on the coin, however, but an inscription on the coin identified him as the “son of god.”

The followers of the Pharisees and of Herod—who were normally at odds with one another—thought they had together devised the perfect “gotcha” question when they asked Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (Mt 22:17) If he answered yes, he would be flouting religious law, but if he responded negatively, he would be seen as advocating sedition against the Roman state. In his clever non-answer, Jesus asked whose likeness appeared on the coin that was used to pay the tax. When they responded that it was the emperor’s image, he famously replied, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt 22:21).

In the two millennia since Jesus made this famous declaration, Christians have sometimes interpreted his statement as dividing human affairs between spiritual and temporal powers, with the church acting in God’s place to regulate religious matters and civil governments having authority over everything else. Certainly Jesus makes allowance for the legitimate role of political leaders, yet he suggests that their scope is limited.

If the coin bears Caesar’s image and therefore belongs to him, then it follows that whatever bears God’s image belongs to God. The early Christian writer Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 220) interpreted Jesus’s words to mean that we should render “the image of Caesar, which is on the coin, to Caesar, and the image of God, which is on the human person, to God.” Christians and Jews alike affirm that God created humans in the divine image (see Gen 1:27). We recognize as well that all creation bears the image of the Creator. To render unto God what is God’s is to care for everything that bears the divine likeness, including this planet and everything that lives on it.

The church has had a complex relationship with the state. As Christianity spread out into various parts of the world, its followers sometimes ran afoul of civil authority and endured great persecutions. After Constantine’s Edict of Toleration in 313 AD, however, the church and its leaders became deeply entangled in political affairs, far too often to the detriment of its mission.

This relationship between church and state—a thorny issue even today—needs to be discerned anew in each age. Whether through direct involvement, active resistance, or even withdrawal from political affairs, the responsibility of Christians remains the same. Disciples of Christ are to recognize the sovereignty of God over all creation and to care for all that bears the divine image—proclaiming good news to the poor, feeding the hungry, setting free those unjustly bound, confronting injustice, and conserving the world’s resources for the benefit of all, to “give to God what is God’s.”

A Hymn for Today: “Te alabarán, oh Jehová / There’s Not a King on This Earth”

These Spanish psalm verses (Ps 138:4-6) echo the teaching of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading as they declare, “All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O Lord.” This short portion of Psalm 138 also makes explicit the difference between earthly rulers and the God who is over all: “For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly.”

The jubilant musical setting for these psalm verses evokes a spirit of celebration as the text proclaims the sovereignty of God: “for great is the glory of the Lord.” Listen here.

The text was translated for singing in English by John Thornburg, FHS.

Te alabarán, oh Jehová todos los reyes,
todos los reyes de la tierra,
porque han oído los dichos de tu boca
y cantarán de los caminos de Jehová.

Porque la gloria der Jehová es grande,
porque Jehová atiende al humilde,
mas mira de lejos al altivo.

There’s not a king on this earth that will not praise you,
Yes, Lord, each one will sing your praises,
for they have heard what your holy lips have spoken
and they will sing about the pathways of the Lord.

Because the glory of the Lord is stunning,
And all the ways of the Lord are true perfection,
the ears of God are attuned to the lowly,
God watches the prideful from a distance.

Text: Psalm 138:4-6; tr. by John Thornburg, b. 1954, © 2012 General Board of Global Ministries. Used by permission under OneLicense #A-729857.
Music: Coro pentecostal del Caribe hispano

Image Credit: Joyful Mountain Landscape, Paul Klee, 1879-1940, Yale University Art Gallery

“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.

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