Image: The Australian $1 coin will be the first to carry the new effigy of King Charles III (AAP).

‘An image to bear’

Andrew Collis
Ordinary Sunday 29, Year A
Matthew 22:15-22

A trick question elicits a trick answer. Jesus asks for the coin used to pay the Roman tax (it’s interesting that he himself does not possess the coin), then asks whose image it bears.

Most likely the coin in question bore the image of the emperor Tiberius who ruled Rome during the years 14-37CE. One side of the coin would have deified Tiberius as a “son of the divine Augustus”. The other side would have honoured him as the “Pontifex Maximus” or “chief priest” of Roman polytheism – which is to say that the two sides of the coin celebrated absolute religious and civil authority for Tiberius.

(We might think about our own coins. Whose image do they bear? What claims to civil and religious authority? What claims to sovereignty?)

When Jesus’ questioners say that the coin bears the image of Caesar, he replies: “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but give to God what is God’s.” 

Rather than making an obvious political statement, Jesus seeks to evade a trap by way of satire, and a summons to “constant discernment as to how, within the overall claim of God, they are to discharge civic obligations” (Brendan Byrne SJ).

Satire brings wisdom. According to Genesis 1:26, human beings (in all their wonderful diversity) bear the image of God. 

Giving ourselves to God, then, means living out who we are – living fully, meaningfully … gracefully and graciously … It means to rediscover our vocation as custodians or “sustainability agents” (Tyson Yunkaporta) and to practise love in the image of God … “to stream like the sun and the rain, to shine, to flow, out into the other” (Catherine Keller, after 13th-century poet and mystic Hadewijch).

Divine creativity, that is, urges us, as from within, to create amorously, and not without chaos – to actualise/incarnate our potential. 

Christian existentialist Gabriel Marcel writes of a light “we must radiate toward one another, knowing very well that our role consists above all, and perhaps even exclusively, in not being an obstacle to its passage through us”. 

And in the shadow of 20th-century (ongoing) racism and social injustice, James Baldwin says: “To be an Afro-American, or an American black, is to be in the situation … of all those who have ever found themselves part of a civilisation which they could in no wise honorably defend – which they were compelled, indeed, endlessly to attack and condemn – and who yet spoke out of the most passionate love, hoping to make the kingdom new, to make it honorable and worthy of life.”

“By strong though invisible attractions,” writes Charles Wesley (two centuries earlier), God “draws some souls through their intercourse with others”.

Founded in 2014, Roots is a Palestinian and Israeli initiative for understanding, nonviolence and transformation.

The Palestinians and Israelis involved in this initiative do not hide the many deep disagreements between them. On the contrary, they are deeply aware of the complexities of the conflict and of the lack of equality between the two sides. What unites them is their honest search for human understanding and nonviolent resolution to the conflict.

Roots members, including Ali Abu A’wad and Rabbi Hanan Schleisinger, are from different worlds though they live in the same land. They discuss coming to know themselves through a process of transformation born of their willingness to see each other as human beings who belong to the land. They speak of their respect for each other, their love for their people, and their shared commitment to working for peace and justice. They are working together because the future being imagined for them is not the future they want. Together, they articulate a powerful vision of the future they do want: freedom, security, mutual flourishing for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Currently finishing his book, Painful Hope, Ali Abu A’wad is a leading Palestinian activist teaching non-violent resistance, and reaching out to Jewish Israelis at the heart of the conflict. Ali has toured the world many times over, telling his riveting story of violent activism, imprisonment, bereavement and discovery of the path of non-violent resistance, a story of personal transformation.

Hanan Schlesinger is an Orthodox rabbi and teacher, and a passionate Zionist settler who has been profoundly transformed by his friendship with Ali. His understanding of the reality of the Middle East conflict and of Zionism has been utterly complicated by the parallel universe that Ali has introduced him to.

Human beings (in all their wonderful diversity) bear the image of God.

And Jesus embodies the answer to the question posed by the Pharisees and Herodians: he gives to God all that is God’s, offering his own life for the life of the world – for the sake of an evolving network of relations (it is never about Jesus alone) in which his life is lived as an act of worship.

Catherine Keller writes: “[W]e are commanded – shall we say urgently invited – to coordinate our personal desires with the well-being of our larger world … The power of love flows from the risk of the larger love – sometimes … at the cost of self-sacrifice.”

The good news is this: Caesar’s violence (the love of power, heartless, selfish or foolish) cannot destroy Jesus’ politics of a new world. The crucified and risen Sovereign (there is life and joy beyond imperial desires for possession and control) welcomes us into this politics of the reign of God – whose rule of love is discerning relationship, creativity, justice and compassion.

May it be so. Amen.