Monday, 6 October 2014

Whose Image?

Then the Pharisees met together to plot how to trap Jesus into saying something for which he could be arrested. They sent some of their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to meet with him. “Teacher,” they said, “we know how honest you are. You teach the way of God truthfully. You are impartial and don’t play favourites. Now tell us what you think about this: Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

But Jesus knew their evil motives. “You hypocrites!” he said. “Why are you trying to trap me? Here, show me the coin used for the tax.”

When they handed him a Roman coin, he asked, “Whose picture and title are stamped on it?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

“Well, then,” he said, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.”
His reply amazed them, and they went away.

I don't know about other countries, but here in the UK all our money - coin and paper - has the queen's head on it; how little has changed in two millennia. But it makes the first of Jesus' points clearer: pay your taxes, don't cheat the government. The government prints the money and, these days, it gives it its value, so give to the government what is theirs. No tax evasion, no tax avoidance: the mean-spiritedness which pays accountants and advisors in order to avoid paying the government just shrivels the soul.

But that part of Jesus' reply is not what amazed his questioners and sent them away silenced.

"Give to God what is God's" - if money bears the Caesar's image, what bears the image of God? Or, more precisely, who? Way back in the very first chapter of the Bible, we are told "God created mankind in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them". You and I bear God's picture, his image ... maybe somewhat messed up, but there nevertheless.

"Give to God what is God's" - that would be myself, and my neighbours. Jesus said elsewhere that we cannot serve both God and Mammon - money, wealth, possessions. Money is useful to live, and has its own rules, including payment of taxes due. But God takes priority over money.

Part of the background to the question was that people were struggling to pay both the Roman taxes and the taxes and tithes demanded by the religious authorities. Part of Jesus' answer is that these religious authorities - and the questioners - were wrong to be focussing on money as they did. Their focus should have been righteousness and justice - which would have messed up their cosy relationship with the Roman occupiers, of course.

The standard Anglican communion service has a quite remarkable line toward the end:
Through him [Jesus] we offer you our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice.
Which is an amazing sentence, when you think about it, but it does take Jesus' 'Give to God' point very seriously.

Money is useful for living, but God must come first: his justice and his mercy. And how we spend our money (after taxes) reflects our priorities. Whether that is in spending a few extra pence on 'fairly traded' food (or not), or buying more expensive (in the short term) low-power light bulbs (or not), or reducing our use of our car - if we have one - in favour of walking, cycling or public transport (or not).

We are made in God's image; so are African farmers struggling against unfair global terms of trade; and so are Bangladeshi's at risk of being flooded out as sea levels rise due to global warming.

Giving to God what is God's means being careful of God's image, wherever it occurs, and acting in ways which benefit that image throughout the world.

"Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God."

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