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A businesswoman was driving home from a convention in New Mexico when she saw an elderly Navajo woman walking on the side of the road.
As the trip was a long and quiet one, she stopped the car and asked the Navajo woman if she would like a ride.
With a silent nod of thanks, the woman got into the car.
Resuming the journey, the businesswoman tried to make a bit of small talk with the Navajo woman, but the old lady just sat silently, looking intently at everything she saw, studying every little detail. Finally, she noticed a brown bag on the seat next to the businesswoman.
“What’s in the bag?” asked the Navajo woman.
The businesswoman looked down at the brown bag and said, “It’s a bottle of Scotch. I got it for my husband.”
The Navajo woman was silent for another moment or two. Then speaking with the quiet wisdom of an elder, she said: “Good trade…”
Early in the Acts of the Apostles, the disciples were going about the business that Jesus had given them: proclaiming the Gospel. As they did, they stirred up the same kind of trouble that Jesus had, so the religious leaders tried all sorts of tactics to quiet them. At one point – you can read about it in Chapter 5 of Acts – Peter enraged the religious leaders so much that they wanted to kill him, but Gamaliel, a wise Pharisee and member of the council, warned them against it. He reminded the rest of the council of two events where others had tried teaching something new or opposing the current political climate with the Romans and concluded by saying, “So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” One of the events that he reminded them of involved a man named Judas – not Iscariot – saying, “Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered.”
Judas, who Josephus says was one of the founders of the Zealots, was an extreme nationalist, so he deeply opposed the Romans and he insisted that Jews not pay taxes to Rome. When he discovered Jews who were paying taxes, he had their houses burned and their live stock stolen. He, along with his sons, were crucified for their troubles.
At the time of Jesus’ ministry, these events would still have been fresh in the minds of the people, so when the Pharisees came to him and said, “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” They were not asking a theological or philosophical question. They were just trying to get him killed. However, Jesus turned it on them.
“Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” They brought him a coin and he asked, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” It was the emperor’s image stamped on the coin and his title declared him to be the son of the Divine Augustus – the son of god – and high priest. So Jesus then said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And the implication could not be any more clear: the coin has Caesar’s image on it, so give to him what is his, you, on the other hand… Genesis 1:27 – “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” You, on the other hand have been “stamped” with the image of God, therefore, give to God what belongs to Him. Give to God, yourself. The Pharisees went away dumbfounded.
This image of God, imago Dei, keeps coming up. Even last week, did you notice it in our Psalm? 106. The Psalmist was retelling the marvelous deeds of God and the Exodus, then the Psalmist brings up the golden calf the people made when Moses delayed up on the mountain with God:
Israel made a bull-calf at Horeb
and worshiped a molten image;
Then the Psalmist drops in a real zinger:
And so they exchanged their Glory
for the image of an ox that feeds on grass.
They exchanged the glory of the image of God that had been stamped on them for the image of an ox. Jesus is giving the Pharisees a similar lesson: you who bear the image of God within your very flesh have neglected the One who created you. This coin is Caesar’s – so what! – give back to him what is his. You are God’s, give back to Him what is His!
According to the Navajo woman, the businesswoman made a good trade for her husband by getting a bottle of Scotch in exchange, but by not giving to God what is God’s, the trading of the image of God that is upon us for the image of an ox – or whatever other skin we choose to wear – is a colossal mistake, but it is also one that we are frequently prone to make.
Eustace Scrubb, in C.S. Lewis’, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, is a rather unpleasant and mean little boy. Instead of people, he prefers books and bugs. There comes a day when, along with Lucy and Edmond, Eustace is magically transported to the land of Narnia. While there, he finds the treasures of a dead dragon and schemes on how he can have it for himself. While thinking, he discovers the dragon’s bracelet and puts it on, but then becomes tired and falls asleep. When he wakes up, he has become the dragon and it is horrible. For fear of a dragon, the others try and kill him. The bracelet he wears is tight and painful, but he is helpless to change back. He has exchanged his image.
We would like to think that this is just a children’s story, but we’ve all done it. We see something that we desire, something that we want to become, but instead of possessing that which we desire, the desire possesses us. We exchange what God has stamped on our lives, for what the world has stamped on our lives and in our hearts. When we realize how deep we are actually in, we discover how difficult it is to change. Michael Corleone, Godfather, Part III – “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” But we are not without hope.
Eustace desperately wanted to be a boy again and it was then that he meets Aslan the lion, the character that represents Jesus in the story. Aslan tells Eustace that in order to be a boy again, he must “undress.” Eustace understands this to mean that he must peel off his dragon hide, so he begins clawing himself and the scales fly, but when the dust settled, he discovered that there were more scales underneath, so again he scratched, only to achieve the same result. Eventually, Aslan says, “You will have to let me undress you.”
Eustace reports, “I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.
“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off….
“Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was lying on the grass, only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again.”
As Paul teaches us, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Not only can it be fearful, but it can be painful as well, transformation in any form, is not always easy. But in the case of God, when he heals what we’ve become into what he created, the fear and pain are our natural responses to encountering his love, a love, as we said last week, that does not desire for us to stay where we are in sin and darkness, but instead a love that desires not only for us to be drawn into his holiness and marvelous light, but also to become one with Him – He in us and we in Him.
Some trades are better than others. If you have exchanged the image of God that is within you for the image of an ox, a dragon, a Caesar, or any other impersonator, then seek and allow the One who created you to heal you and restore you.
Let us pray: Father in Heaven, when the Spirit came down upon Jesus at His Baptism in the Jordan, You revealed Him as Your own Beloved Son. Keep us, Your children, born of water and the Spirit, faithful to our calling. May we, who bear your image and share in Your Life as Your child through Baptism, follow in Christ’s path of service to all. Let us become one in His Sacrifice and hear His Word with faith. May we live as Your children, following the example of Jesus, our Savior. Amen.