Whose Image?
March 4, 2024

Whose Image?


Text: Mark 12:1-17

Whose image? Whose inscription? Those are the words have been echoing in my heart and mind this week. Jesus asks “Whose image and inscription is this?” A Pharisee has taken one out of his pocket - or from his person somewhere. A he's given the coin - the representation of about a day’s wages - to Jesus. He, along with some Herodians have asked Jesus whether or not it is right to pay taxes. The Herodians are the supporters or leaders in Rome’s puppet monarchy. They are trying to trap him.

Here’s the trap: Jesus is super popular among the common folk of Judea and Galilee. He’s followed around by crowds of Jews who are faithful and who are occupied by Rome and their Herodian yes-men. If Jesus says ‘yes’ to taxes, he will no longer have the favor of his followers. If he says ‘no’ that will flag him as a rebel and a resistance leader, though it may be popular with his followers. 

So he doesn’t say yes. And he doesn’t say no. He says, “Whose image and inscription are on this coin?” The image is that of the occupier. The inscription says, “August and Divine Son.” 

These days we are surrounded by images. Eikonos - the word Mark used to describe the relief of Caesar's profile on the denarius - is the clear forebearer to the word ‘icon’ that once meant a religious image and now mostly means pixels on our many screens. Even as I wrote this in a neighborhood coffee shop I saw images (eikonos) on peoples' clothes, on the walls of the restaurant, in the tattoos of patrons, on the book that next to me on the table, on the cookie that I was eating (a flag of Palestine!) not to mention on the screens of my phone and computer. Conservatively 2 dozen icon images of various kinds just in the tabs and taskbar alone.

First century Palestinians wouldn’t have had a rich iconographic environment. To be sure, there were artists making statuary and mosaics and textiles and paintings - but probably not many if any Jews and probably not images of people or created beings, since many would have interpreted these as ‘graven images’ in defiance of the second commandment. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (Ex. 20:3 KJV)

And those images that did exist were likely not available to the common person. An image held real weighty symbolism. Stamped on a coin, the image proclaimed not only the value of the money but the weight of the occupation of Rome. It was the occupiers’ money and the occupiers’ tax they were asking about.

“Give to Caesar what it Caesar. Give to God what is Gods.” Which got me to thinking, if Caesar’s image is stamped on money, who is God’s image stamped on? I wonder if the people listening to Jesus started thinking about that too. 

Jesus response builds on the parable he has just told to (against) the temple leaders and elders. A parable that started in a way that would have sounded so familiar to his listeners because it was about a vineyard. We heard that story about a vineyard back in fall - Isaiah’s story about the people of Israel as a vineyard that produced what looked like justice but distorted and harmful. Just-ish.

Now, in Jesus’ parable, the people are still the vineyard. But it is not they who are unfaithful but those who ostensibly tend the vineyard. The elders and leaders are being implicated both for not caring for and stewarding well their people, and for persecuting and murdering the prophets who have been sent. As folks used to thinking of themselves as the landowners - because they were - it must have been infuriating to be called out for their unjust behavior. No wonder they wanted to find a way to entrap him by his own teachings.

And instead he turns it around on them again. In a culture where the idea of image held so much weight, he has invited them to interrogate whose image they are carrying around on and in them. Whose image is making the deepest stamps on them?

I am a visually oriented person. I’m a visual learner and though I hesitate to call myself an artist, I really love creating beautiful or interesting images in all kinds of media. I'm attracted to images and art. My Mennonite ancestors might have questioned this love as frivolity or idolatry. I think that is, at least in part, why among European Mennonites quilting became a way of expressing artistry. Practical but also beautiful!

This tug to examine images is what made this question stick to me so much. What images am I carrying around. I think because we’re not only an image-rich culture, but because we want to proclaim our uniqueness, we use images to declare our allegiances. We wear T-shirts of our favorite bands or declaring the places we’ve visited, we put stickers on our cars or our waterbottles or our computers, we tattoo our affiliations and loyalties on our bodies. We (or maybe just me?) hope people will think we’re cool because of these ways of identifying ourselves. 

But whose image and whose allegiance should we be carrying? AMBS Professor Alan Krieder of blessed memory used to say that he had no problem as a Mac user, evangelizing far and wide about how wonderful Apple products are. (Speaking of stickers and icons: Such excellent branding!) But he was less likely to spread the non-violent, love-and-justice filled message of Jesus. I think of that often. I’m not that way with Apple but I’m a little that way with Google workspace.

First century Palestinians couldn’t opt out of the economy. They would have been paid, traded, owned things. They would even have carried and used coins, though more likely in much smaller denominations and probably not Roman. More likely Greek or Phoenician and made of bronze, rather than gold or silver like that with Caesar’s face. In the gospels we hear about the woman who puts her two small coins in the temple treasury or the woman who sweeps her whole house to find a lost coin. Jesus and his disciples are supported by people who have wealth - or at least enough to share. They’re a part of this system of money and spending.

The same is true for us. It’s pretty hard to opt out. But how does the way I engage identify whose image is making a mark on me? I had to search my own house to find a coin this week because it’s so rare for me to use cash and coinage. And the only ones I came up with were Canadian. (I’m sure I could have found some if I’d tried harder.) But I do carry around a credit card with an image on it. Logos for Visa and Master card. Images of giant corporations. I can give myself one or two pats on the back for switching from my Chase bank, Amazon rewards visa to a Credit Union card. But we still have that card. Still have a prime account and there’s almost no way of functioning within contemporary society without operating through big corporations and within systems of government.

When Jesus says, “Give to Caesar what it Caesars,” or “Render unto Caesar,” he is actually using a word that means repayment of debt. Repay the one you owe the most. Maybe he means ‘We owe Caesar nothing!’ Maybe he means, ‘Caesar can have his money! Our lives are God’s’ I think really what he means, is “Y’all are missing the point!” Money is a tool - you leaders are using money as a tool for injustice and oppression and the image it bears is one of empire and domination. You’re showing your own butts by having it in the first place, and by owning land and profiting off of laborers.

I’ve gotten almost to the end of my sermon and you’ll noticed that like Jesus, I too avoided the question of whether or not to pay taxes. And here we are in tax season! We need answers! Like Jesus I think the question is a bit of a trap. There are some Mennonites who say absolutely not. 50% of our taxes go toward military spending, and our responsibility is to withhold tax dollars as an act of justice and non-violence. 

Others would say that as part of this system and as responsible citizens, paying taxes is piece of how we steward our communities locally and nationally. Some have not thought about it I know for sure, Jesus is asking us to think about it, so I’m going to pull a Jesus and say we each need to decide this for ourselves. 

And I will end with this prayer: 

May we be invited into intention with our wealth and with our power.

May we be invited into seeing ourselves as image bearers of God and not of nation. 

May we be invited into an understanding that even as we as a dwell in empires of this world 

we are residents first of the Reign of God. 

And may we choose allegiance to God’s Reign in all we do. Amen.

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