By Christian Bermann
Lately, I have been making my way through a massive tome by the biblical scholar N.T Wright called The New Testament in its World. It is a highly informative and thought-provoking journey through the pages of the New Testament and the historical landscape that shaped it. Something in particular struck me today. In one of the reflections on Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees concerning whether or not the Jews should pay taxes (Matthew 22:15-22), he points out that this short passage reveals far more than what we normally take away from it (i.e. to pay our taxes like good citizens, but give our hearts to God). In the ancient world, the coin that the Pharisees show Jesus, the denarius, was most likely a Tiberian tribute coin with an inscription on it reading ‘Son of the divine Augustus’. The Pharisees themselves acknowledge that it was Caesar’s face on the coin (v.20), a man claiming divine status. Such a graven image was a violation of the second commandment. Because of this, one of the things Jesus was suggesting is that in paying taxes they are giving back to Caesar something that was already an affront to their religion.
This was something Saint Augustine recognised as well. He saw this interaction as a contrast between two images: the image of a false god (Caesar), and the image of God in humanity. Augustine says this: “Caesar looks for his own image. It is not Caesar’s will that what he ordered to be made should be lost to him, and it is not surely God’s will that what He has made should be lost to Him” (Sermon 40 on the New Testament, paragraph 10). He continues: “By the love of the truth, then, be that image after which we were created, engraven anew” (#10). The injunction of Jesus in this passage is to live as the image of God we were created to be and not serve the image of a false god.
This makes sense, because shortly after Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is. Jesus’ reply is this: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’” (Matthew 22:37). So, with everything.
Jesus offers us here what we might call an ‘integral anthropology’, a wholesome account of the human person that treats equally the heart, the soul and the mind. The image of God with which we as human persons have been stamped is not to be found in one aspect of our being, in this or that characteristic, but in our whole self as it has been created by God. It prevents us from compartmentalising ourselves, as if we can give part of ourselves over to a false god and part of ourselves to the living God. No – our entire being, stamped as it is with the image of God, is summoned to love the living, creator God and acknowledge no others.
This is wonderfully consistent with ancient Jewish theology. We tend to read the creation account in Genesis in a literalistic way about the process of creation. Instead, the ancient Jews read it as the creation of a temple where God’s presence was intended to dwell. Any temple, the pagans knew, needed an icon or an image of its god within for the people to worship. For the Jews, however, there was no image of God possible because humanity had already been created in that image and likeness. And so, we can agree with Saint Edith Stein that to be an image of God is primarily a vocation, something we are called to act out faithfully.
In Matthew’s Gospel, in his interaction with the Pharisees over taxes and with his appeal to the greatest commandment, what Jesus summons us to is a renewed understanding of humanity as created in the image of God, in our whole self, and a mission to live that out.