The Image You Bear

Matthew 22:15-22

This post piggy-backs on my previous post. When I was in Eureka Springs, AR, in August, I went into a quaint little shop that specialized in rocks, jewelry, coins, sculptures, paintings, some textiles, … okay, okay, so he didn’t specialize in one particular thing, but it was quaint. I ended up buying a coin for far too much, which when you spend ten dollars for a coin that’s worth nothing, that’s a lot…especially for a German Lutheran like me.

The coin that drew my interest was one said to bear the image of Constantius II, the second son of Constantine. He lived from 317 – 361 and succeeded his father who had established Christianity as the religion of the Roman state. Constantius II was the emperor of Rome from 337 to 361. I knew I liked him when I found out he issued an edict that first provided tax exemptions to clergy and their servants. Clergy must have been paid well in those days to be able to afford servants.

Anyway, Constantius II’s image was stamped on the coin. The proprietor said that there was an inscription in Latin that means “Happy Days are Here Again.” Maybe that’s what hooked me on buying it, thinking it would mystically bring some more happy days again.

I don’t know the value Constantius’ image gave to the monetary medium in that day. When it comes to money, it’s the image stamped on it that ascribes a value to it. George Washington’s image stamped on a dollar bill ($1) gives less value to paper money compared to Grover Cleveland’s image ($1,000). I wouldn’t mind a couple of bills with Woodrow Wilson’s image ($100,000). So it all depends on whose image is stamped on the medium as to its useful value.

Jesus said, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Martin Luther said that we are to give to our earthly rulers the things their image is stamped on, but “God will have the heart.” Caesar rules the kingdom of the world and God rules the kingdom of the heart.

God’s image is already stamped on your heart. You have a value based upon what that image looks like. Your value to the world might be great or it might be minimal depending on that image. Did you know that the image of God is more diverse than the number of presidents and emperors and kings and queens that have ever been stamped on paper money around the world?

Everyone bears an image of God based upon what they were taught as children. That’s the most critical time to imprint God’s image on someone’s heart – and probably the most vulnerable time – when they are small and unable to think for themselves. Children never doubt the wisdom of their teachers, no matter if they’re biblical scholars or teenagers. Maybe that’s what Moses meant when he said, “Teach them when they are young and when they are old they won’t depart from it.” It’s difficult for anyone to change their image of God once it’s been stamped on tablets of stone.

We begin by teaching three and four and five and six year olds that God punishes you if you are bad, telling them about floods and earthquakes and poisonous snakes sent by an angry God. We tell them about a God who helps us kill our enemies, like David against Goliath, and the occupation of the Promised Land.

Then we teach them about Jesus and how God loves us so much he had to kill his son so he wouldn’t have to get angry with us anymore…our sins are forgiven. Whew. We’re glad there’s another side to the coin. On one side the image is anger and punishment, on the other, love and forgiveness. And that makes religion a difficult balancing act when Jesus says things that contradict the opposite side of the coin.

The writer of Hebrews says God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The New Testament tells us that God is love. That’s quite a turnaround for the Ancient of Days.

Few religions give their disciples permission to rethink the variety of images that have been blended together and stamped on immovable doctrinal edicts. Even though one’s mental capacities develop beyond an elementary, concrete level of thinking, you’re a heretic if you question earlier teachings. Name-calling, excommunication from the community,  or burning at the stake have always been tools used to keep people in line with sound doctrine.

In Genesis we learned that we are created in the image of God. What image is that for you? However you see God, according to Luther’s quote in the previous post, that’s the kind of God who rules in you. And if that’s the kind of God you imagine, then your thoughts and actions may reflect a similar image.

Jesus came and tried to change the tradition’s image of God. He knew that if he could change it to an image of love, then this is the God who would reign within them. And they would change. We all know how much people like to change. They fight and kill to keep things the same.

St. Paul said in Colossians 1:15, For [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God. If the image of God that is stamped on your heart looks like Jesus, then your actions just might reflect something closer to that image.

Ultimately, I think we’re all like coins whose value to humankind is determined by the image we bear on our hearts.

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