A week ago Thursday I was in Capernaum, at the house of Simon Peter’s Mother-in-Law (the doorway from which Jesus healed many). A few doors down from that house is a Synagogue from the 3rd or 4th century.
Now, when you go up the steps into the entrance of this Synagogues there is an interesting feature—you’ll miss it if you’re not looking for it.
You look down and see two holes, both filled in with modern concrete… well, they’re the place where money was exchanged.
You see, by then the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, so the Synagogue had become the center of worship for Jewish people. And much like churches today, that meant money needed to be collected for the maintenance and ministry of the community… but much like the Temple, that money couldn’t be Roman coins—because those often had images of emperors as gods, so the money was traded in for Jewish coins without those graven images on them.
In other words, you’d put your roman coin in one hole and exchange it for a Jewish coin from the other hole when you entered the Synagogue.
And today, that’s my question: How do we exchange Graven images for the Image of God?
The Pharisees show up in the temple
—the Pharisees are a group who go out of their way to keep their people separated from non-Jews
—They want to make sure Jews are different.
The Herodians show up in the temple
—The Herodians are fierce Hellenizers
—they want Judaism to shed it’s differences with other cultures and become just like Rome or Greece.
They agree on nothing.
It’s like Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Rand Paul of Kentucky
… or the University of Oregon Ducks and the OSU Beavers,
Whatever analogy you prefer—it’s like these two polar opposite groups ended up in the same room together.
We expect a conflict to erupt… but there appears to be one thing the Herodians and Pharisees can agree on…
Jesus is disruptive.
Jesus is dangerous.
Jesus isn’t playing the game
and Jesus definitely isn’t playing it by their rules.
So they come at him, each from a different direction.
They butter him up and then ask, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?”
If Jesus says yes
the Pharisees can say he sides with the Herodians and dismiss him as such. The crowds will see him as a stooge of the empire, someone unwilling to stand up to those who occupy their land.
Likewise, if he says no
the Herodians can tattle on him to Herod and do away with him as a rabble rouser who preaches insurrection.
So Jesus makes sure the crowd knows he’s not really in on this fight between the Herodians and the Pharisees.
He begins “Let me see one of those coins.”
After all, he doesn’t have such a coin in the temple—that’s a no-no, just as you don’t bring graven images into the Synagogue you surely don’t bring them into the Temple…
maybe even Jesus has never owned such a coin—After all, I don’t think Jesus was known for his hording of money.
He answers in a way that satisfies the Herodians, and goes beyond the Pharisees…
sure coins belong to the image they have on them…
but the image on us—the image of God—belongs to God.
Human beings do not belong to Caesar… or his Empire… or to the coins themselves… no, from the beginning we’ve belonged to God. We’re made in the image of God.
And that brings me back to my question—How do we exchange Graven Images for the Image of God?
How do we take the broken, or at least incomplete, images we’ve made,
of our neighbor,
of our highest ideals,
How do we drop them into that hole and exchange them for the Image of God?
My answer in short is this, we see images for what they are and we become who we are.
We see images for what they In Isaiah we read that Cyrus the Great of Persia has just broken the power of Babylon and freed all the people from there—including the Jews who were in exile.
Now one response to this would be to deify Cyrus, to make him a god—to turn him into a graven image…
Instead Isaiah makes an amazing theological move—he recognizes God’s actions behind the scenes
—that Cyrus rather than being a god, is called by God—anointed by God for his particular task in history.
Isaiah exchanges the coin of Cyrus’ conquest by recognizing that he is just a man—by making a distinction between creature and creator.
Or if you want to think in more Lutheran terms think of Luther’s explanation of the 10 commandments—we ought to Love, be in awe of, and trust God above all things—the creator alone is creator, all else is counterfeit coin.
We become who we are. In 1st Thessalonians Paul praises the Thessalonians as imitators of both Paul and of the Lord, that is imitators of Christ. They are made in that image because of their joy in the face of persecution and their faithfulness…
these two things point people to the Holy Spirit from whom their Joy comes, and the Lord who is always faithful.
This is, in fact, the meaning of the earliest place where we find the image of God—Genesis 1, where we hear that God “created humankind in His image, in the image of God he created them, males and females he created them.”
This isn’t about us looking like God or God looking like us—that God stands upright, has 10 fingers and toes and no prehensile tail.
No, the point of the Image of God—the Tsella of God—the point of humans, is that we are the marker on the earth pointing out who takes care of the earth—pointing not to ourselves, but instead to God.
We are images of God that point all of creation to God.
The Thessalonians exchanged graven images for the Image of God when their being
—their faith and their joy—pointed to God.
How do we exchange Graven Images for the Image of God?
We look at the images of Caesars of all sorts and see them for who they are,
just another part of creation.
We strive to be glass, so we ourselves are not seen, but instead God is seen through us,
knowing even that is a gift from God.
We see images for what they are
and we become who we are.