Image is everything.
Some years ago I was living in Florence Italy, running a study-abroad program for Georgetown University, and a wealthy Italian trustee of the program handed me a a round piece of crude metal. “I thought you might be interested in seeing this,” he said. On one side there was a profile of a head. Arching over the head was the clearly imprinted word “Caesar” and some other words I couldn’t read. I flipped it over and there was an image of a seated woman, holding something in her hand.
It was an authentic Roman coin, and its owner told me that it was from the year 12 BC. The head was a profile of Tiberius Julius Caesar, and the words indicated that he was the high priest and the emperor. The coin was called a Tribute Denarius—which means ‘tax penny’---and one like it was apparently shown to Jesus in the famous Gospel story about the coin.
I remember looking at the image of the Emperor on the coin and thinking that it looked very feminine. It seemed odd, for a man who was apparently one of the greatest of Roman generals, conquering most of what is now Europe and Eastern Europe with his army. What did his subjects think of him when they saw his image staring up at them from their dirty hands, soiled from their hard labors in the fields? This was a face of value, this was a face of power that demanded honor and respect.
Whatever they thought about him, it was important for Caesar to have his face in the palms of his subjects’ hands.
For an emperor, image was everything.
There he is, right there stamped on on something that signifies property of wealth and power: the awesome, divine, all powerful Tiberius Caesar! It’s like having your name embellished in gold letters on impressive buildings that loom over the landscape—hard to forget, a regular reminder of who is greater amidst the masses who walk on the sidewalks below.
I saw a movie this weekend called Brad’s Status. It’s about a middle aged-guy named Brad, played by Ben Stiller, who is going through a kind of midlife crisis. He takes stock of his modest and relatively anonymous career and lifestyle and compares it in a jealous semi-rage to the obvious financial and worldly success of his college friends. One of them is a famous politician on TV all the time; another made a killing in hedge funds and was retired in Hawaii at 40; a third guy owned a company and his own jet plane. It was clear that Brad would never have his name in gold letters anywhere, and the most he would ever matter to the world would happen if his college-bound son became famous and made it big as a genius musician. As they toured the campus of Harvard, Brad even gets jealous of his son, who looks like he will be going to a better college than the one he attended.
I was with one of my former film students watching the movie, and afterwards we sat in the theater for a whileand talked about it. He expressed sympathy with the character. At the age of 27, he already feels pangs of jealousy when he sees his peers achieve what he perceives to be a significant step up in the glamorous film world. I told him I know the feeling. There have been many times in my life when I have dreamed of glory and fame, and was jealous of my own friends for their worldly successes. I eventually realized that those feelings were instilled by my need to feel loved and appreciated: if I were that successful, it would prove that I was loveable.
When I got back home to the rectory, I got ready to go to bed, and went to the sink to brush my teeth. There was that image I see every day when I get up in the morning and when I go to sleep at night, staring me right back at me in the mirror, with a toothbrush in my mouth.
When we are young we gaze into the privacy of our mirrors and practice who we want to be, trying on faces and hairstyles, looking to see how we can impress the people who matter. We rehearse our imagined selves with toothy smiles, sexy winks, cool sunglass frames, and even fierce and threatening looks.
For adolescent future-emperors, image is everything. In their starvation for self-esteem and status among peers, image is all that matters.
Some of that continues as we get older, and some people still strive mightily to cultivate their image to possess power and wealth and to be loved. But for many in the second half of our lives, we avoid mirrors and try hard to forget what we look like.
Like Brad in the movie, we sometimes catch an unexpected reflection of who we really are—that rapidly aged face with drooping skin, the hair that has lost its vibrancy and color, the eyes which reveal weariness and wariness, barely emitting the deeply buried spark of enthusiasm for anything in our lives. Gone are the dreams of empires or gold letters embossed upon the lintel of a supertall building. The image we see of our selves in the unexpected glance can be depressing because it does not match what our young minds envisioned for the future. It does not match what the world tells us we should look like: we don’t match the relentless images of wealth and power and youth that are used to sell us all kinds of things and which spread the lie to us that they will make us worthwhile and happy, and yes, loveable.
Image is important, yes. But what image are we talking about? Image on a coin? Image of our name in golden letters on a building? Image in a mirror?
Let’s consider the words of Isaiah, where the great prophet reminds us that we are all created in the image of One who chooses each and every one of us in love, and calls us by name.
We are created in the image of One who anoints us and gives us a title.
We are created in the image of One who unbars all the gates, opens all the doors, and grasps us by hand.
We are created in the image of One who is always with us.
And here’s the thing: we are deceived if we look in a mirror and see only our gorgeous or forgettable face looking back.
Image is important, and in some ways, yes, it is everything. And surprisingly, that is exactly what Jesus is trying to tell the Pharisees in the Gospel story about the Roman coin.
When the religious and political authorities are trying to “trap" Jesus, get him to say what he really thinks about paying the census tax or “head tax” so that they can show that Jesus is not orthodox enough, Jesus turns the tables on those who are laying verbal traps for him.
I wonder, if before responding to the question, Jesus tossed a coin in his head: “Heads, I'll let them have it and tell them that their self-righteousness is obnoxious and wrong; or tails, I send the message more subtly.”
In this case “tails” wins out. Jesus skillfully manages to get out of the trap set for him, using the old Denarius coin trick and at the same time he shifts the focus to the “things of God”. If the image of Caesar is on the coin, then sure, give it back to Caesar.
But then, get this: if as Isaiah says the image of God is imprinted on each and every person, then each and every one of us “belongs” to God and that makes us all priceless. That image that you see in the mirror, why... it reveals something much more than our beauty or our power or our wealth. It is an image of inestimable value because it is made in the image of Love.
Jesus is so amazing in his ability to let us see what really matters.
The image of God in us is what really matters: the God in us who calls us see each other as sisters and brothers no matter our color, our gender, our sexuality, our political party or our beliefs, who calls us to be humble and loving to one another, and who calls us to cherish and take care of one another.
The other day I was feeling a little down, a little like Brad in the movie, wondering whether I am of any use in my new work in the parish. I felt a little like a freshman in college, wondering if I’ll ever really find my place, if I’ll ever be good enough.
I took a long walk to the Battery at the end of Manhattan. It was one of those unusually warm days we are having this October, and lots of people were out enjoying the weather. I sat down on a bench overlooking the harbor—there the great green statue of our promise of liberty to all, there the pumpkin orange ferries of the island of Staten, there, some geese flying overhead, honking on their way of their southern migration. I wanted to stop having a pity party, so I decided to pray about a bunch of things—my sister and her family’s issues, the worries and fears of the parishioners who shared with me their concerns and issues with their children, their spouses, their health and their finances. I prayed for the children in the Epiphany school who I am coming to know and love. I prayed for all the people I have seen lying on the sidewalks of Manhattan on my walks every day. I prayed for our city and our country and our church and the issues that divide us so deeply. As I sat there on the bench, a small orange leaf fluttered in the air and landed right there on my lap. I don’t know why, but it just seemed so lovely to me. I thought of the tiny leaf and its meaning in the world, or for that matter, in the universe. And I thought there was nothing more beautiful or more valuable than it at that moment.
I looked up and a gorgeous sunset painting the late afternoon sky, turning even the grass in front of me into shining blades of gold, and it suddenly came to me that God is so large and we are so small.
Here in front of me was the height and breadth and depth of God’s love in this creation and somehow we so easily forget that we are part of something so much bigger than our own small concerns . I started to tear up.
I thought of you all, my brothers and sisters here. And then I felt something that is so eloquently written in today’s second reading: “We give thanks to God always for all of you, remembering you in our prayers, unceasingly calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love.” Your work of faith and labor of love.
Brothers and sisters, that is why we are here today together in this room. Because God is so large and we are so small. And yet even in our smallness we have been entrusted with the work of faith and labors of love, we have been entrusted with the Spirit of Jesus. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” If the Spirit is alive in us as a community of faith, laboring in love is what we are called to live.
For Jesus, the question isn’t what do I look like, or how much do I owe? For us, Jesus challenges us to ask, who do I look like and who am I called to be?
My brothers and sisters: remember what you look like. Image can be everything!