Reflection: October 22

Published on Oct 24th, 2017 by Rev. David Boyd | 0

         Matthew is an interesting gospel. He always presents interesting stories, and some are quite challenging for our modern ears. Today’s reading is an interesting story because there are a couple of ways of interpreting it.

On one level this story is a simple dispute between Jesus and his adversaries; they are unhappy with what Jesus has been preaching and they want to trap him, especially since he has entered Jerusalem and has upset the apple-cart, so to speak. It is a fairly conventional debate with questions and counter questions, which was typical of the day.

         On a deeper level, a different interpretation presents a much higher stakes debate; when you look more deeply at the language from this passage, especially the Greek words meaning “bad faith” and “trick,” as in, “Jesus recognized their bad faith and said to them, ‘Why are you trying to trick me, you hypocrites?’” Actually, these two words are the same words found in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ prayer: “deliver us from evil” and “lead us not into temptation.” The dispute then becomes much more profound, not just a test of wits. The temptation presented is that of perpetuating the evil of power over and domination, which the Romans had perfected. Jesus disputed the evil of those who had an agenda of oppression and fear; Jesus opposed this agenda. Remember, evil for us is not some cosmic battle, but the battle to not let hate, fear, oppression and injustice triumph.

         Jesus also raised the issue of image in saying “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” He referred to a coin and asked, “Whose likeness is this, and whose title?” The Inclusive Bible is a little vague with, “Whose head is this, and whose inscription?” The word in Greek is actually “ikon.” We are familiar with icons because we use them all the time with our computers and our phones and our tablets. If we were Eastern Orthodox Christians, we would be familiar with icons in our every day spiritual traditions. But, the idea, in this case, is that Jesus is asking about likeness. Whose likeness is this?

         Perhaps as well as disputing, Jesus and Matthew are pointing back to that line in the creation story about the creation of human beings, “God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” Jesus reminded his listeners of the understanding that we are made in God’s image and likeness. Image and likeness go together; we are tempted to think only of image… we all know about celebrities and politicians needing a clean image; what is underneath this image may be something altogether different. It’s the word likeness that gives integrity to image! We forget this at our peril.

         And what does it mean to be created in God’s image and likeness? Fred Craddock, a beloved teacher of preaching, once said, “God said … I am proud of the squirrel, I love the elephant, the horse is good, the mule is nice, and I do like these llamas, but the one that is exactly like me is this one. I have breathed in this one my own life.”  Well, to be honest, we are not exactly like God. We are a likeness of God. The Hebrew word translated as image has at its root the meaning “shade” or “shadow.”

         But it is really our character, not our physical attributes, that are about image and likeness. God creates and re-creates. God loves deeply and profoundly. God sets free and gives a sense of justice and peace. God cares and declares goodness. God is love and we can love.

         In our modern world, when thinking about image and likeness, we often go to our physical appearance and our superficial sense of self. Some people do not like their bodies or do not like aspects of themselves and so wonder deeply how they can be made in God’s image and likeness. And we might wonder about murderers and habitual criminals? Are they made in God’s image? That’s without speaking about psychopaths and sociopaths. It is challenging to think that we are created in God’s image and likeness. It strikes to the core of who we are how we perceive ourselves.

         A little story to elucidate: “Angels grew concerned when they learned that God planned to make human beings in God’s own image. ‘How can something so precious and powerful be entrusted to this creature?’ So, they conspired to hide the image of God where no one would ever think to look for it. ‘How about we put it at the bottom of the sea where no one ever goes?’ suggested one angel. ‘No, at the top of the highest mountain that no one will ever scale would be far better,’ another said. One by one the suggestions rolled in, only to be rejected by the larger company of angels. Then the shrewdest of all the angels offered the best idea of the day: ‘Let us hide the divine image in the heart of every person. That is the last place in the world they will look for it.’ So, the angels hid the precious divine image within the heart of human beings, where it has resided ever since.”

         Perhaps the evil that Jesus confronted was the evil that comes with denying our image and likeness. Get over yourself… you are made in God’s image and likeness. Get over your quest for power or money or influence… you are made in God’s image and likeness. Get over your quest to dominate the world… you are made in God’s image and likeness. We are not called to act like gods—although some do! We are called to live into being, created in the image and likeness of God and therefore to serve as agents of love, nurturing, caring, justice, peace, and freedom.

Thomas Merton, a beloved saint and mystic of the Church, bridged the divide between Christianity and Buddhism long before it became popular; many years ago he wrote, “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world … This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud.  . . . And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. . . . Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed.”[1]

         Indeed, no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed! May it be so, if only we would live the image and likeness of God… and we can, and we will, and we do! Amen.

 


[1] See https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/2464342-in-louisville-at-the-corner-of-fourth-and-walnut-in.

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