Twenty-Ninth Sunday, Year A (2023)
“Whose image is this?”
It is perhaps appropriate that at the end of a week that has been so highly charged politically following the referendum last weekend that we should be reading this Sunday Gospel where Jesus is placed in something of a political trap. If he agreed that taxes should be paid to Caesar, he would lose his standing with the people, who resented being taxed by the foreign occupying power. If he forbade paying taxes to Caesar, he would be in trouble with the Romans themselves as a dangerous threat to their rule.
Jesus refused to endorse either choice. He avoided the trap by asking his questioners to produce a coin and then throwing a question back at them. Coins in the ancient world, like those in circulation today, bore the image of the ruler whose authority ran in that place. So when Jesus asks his questioners, “Whose ‘head’—really, ‘whose image’—is this?” they are forced to reply, “Caesar’s”, that is, the Roman emperor. The image of the emperor determines what belongs to him: that is, the whole monetary system and the political set up that goes with it. So Jesus leaves it to them to determine whether and to what extent taxes should be paid to Caesar.
But that’s only half of his response. His questioners had set the issue simply in terms of obligation to Rome; they had not brought God into the equation at all. His majestic answer, “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar—and to God what belongs to God” brings in a whole new dimension.
The image on the coin shows it to belong to Caesar. What then is going to show what belongs to God?
Again it will be shown by an image. Whatever belongs to God will be shown by an image and should be given to God. But where do we find such an image?
On its very first page the Bible tells us. The first account of Creation—the one we hear at the Easter Vigil each year—comes to a climax with its description of human beings as created in the image and likeness to God. Each and every human being, of whatever race, colour, creed, belongs to God, is precious to God and must be treated as such—must be respected as such and valued as such.
And so we, or the state, or the government is ultimately accountable to God for the way we have treated our fellow human beings. It is very sobering to be reminded of this at a time when, especially in the Middle East, there is so much suffering inflicted on those who, like us, belong to God and bear his image.
When human beings had gone astray—as we still do—and, through sin, violence, and all manner of evil had distorted and tarnished the image of God in which they were created, God sent his own Son to become human and embody in the world what it means to be the perfect image of God, the God who is love.
As Christians we have been baptized into that renewed likeness of God that is Christ. Through God’s grace and the sacraments the Holy Spirit continues to transform us so that we, both as individuals and in community, become more and more reflective of that likeness of God in which we were created. St Paul puts it in one of his most attractive sentences:
where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; and this comes from the Lord as Spirit (2 Cor 3:17–18).
That statement doesn’t come from the reading from St Paul that we heard today in the Second Reading. But what we did hear from him in that reading does form a fitting ending to what we’ve been considering in response to the Gospel:
We know, brothers and sisters, that God loves you and that you have been chosen, because when we brought the Good News to you, it came to you not only as words, but as power and as the Holy Spirit and as utter conviction.
It is that conviction that should accompany us as we leave each celebration of Mass and take up our vocation to be and live out the image of God in our world today.
Brendan Byrne, SJ,
St James, Hoppers Crossing North,
21–22 October, 2023.