How often do you look at your money?
Not the balance in your bank account, but the currency you carry.
I pretty much never look at it, myself. These days, with credit cards and electronic payments, we don’t handle cash as often as we used to. But today Jesus is asking us to stop and take a look at it.
Specifically, the Roman denarius, the common coin of the Empire which ruled Israel in Jesus’ time; the pay of the day laborer, and the physical manifestation of the imperial tax system.
This coin contains the trap that the Pharisees were setting for Jesus, when they asked him if it was “lawful” – if it is in accordance with God’s will – to pay imperial taxes.
The denarius was stamped with a picture of the emperor, and the words, “Emperor Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus” – making the claim that the emperor Augustus was a god (so Tiberias is a son of god). The coin itself was an idol of the imperial religion; blasphemy, for anyone who follows the commandment “You shall have no other gods before me.”
But that same blasphemous image is the way Jesus slips out of the trap. “Well, if it’s got the emperor’s image and title, obviously it belongs to the emperor; give it back.”
And give back to God what is God’s. That’s the will of God that you’re asking about.
It’s a smooth move: if you’re worried about blasphemy on the coins, if you’re worried the currency argues with the center of your faith, then give it back to the empire; don’t hold on to the idol and let it hang on to you.
But when Jesus adds “and give back to God what is God’s”, it becomes much more than a clever tactic. It’s a declaration of what really matters. The emperor’s claim on currency doesn’t interfere with the will of God because what matters is the whole will of God, not specific rules.
I believe Jesus is trying to point out to us that if we commit to putting God above everything else, all the other questions – about the emperor’s claim to divinity, the emperor’s claim on our life and our wallets, any other claim on our life and our wallets – become unimportant and easy to set aside. Those things won’t trouble us when the focus of our lives is on God: God’s will and God’s relationship with us.
Jesus tells the crowd in the Temple that you can tell the coin belongs to the emperor because it’s got the image of the emperor on it. Which implies, of course, that what belongs to God is whatever bears God’s image. And the Pharisees and the Herodians and the Temple crowds listening in knew just as well as Jesus, just as well as you or I, that the image of God is all of humanity. We don’t see any image of the face of God other than the faces, souls, and lives of God’s people: ourselves, our neighbors, our human family.
In fact, the image of God is stamped on the face of Tiberius Caesar, just as much all the other faces around us. So the face of God is, in a way, stamped on that denarius, too. That would get us in trouble again, with whether that coin should be given back to the emperor in tax or given back to God, except that Jesus is telling us that’s not a conflict.
Jesus is not setting up a parallel, with one territory for Caesar and a separate territory for God, and we switch between the two of them. Jesus is telling us that what belongs to Caesar is just a tiny part of what belongs to God.
What belongs to your employer, or your bank, or the US government, or a friend or family member – whatever we owe to one another – all of that is just a tiny part of what belongs to God.
Because everything human is stamped with the image of God, keeping our obligations to one another in community is a part of the will of God, not a distraction from our obligations to God.
At least, that’s true when we embrace the whole will of God: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. When we embrace that whole will of God as the center of our being, when we focus on the image of God alive in one another, all the questions about the details of the will of God become clearer and less anxious.
Questions about tax paying, marriage rights and wedding cakes, prayer in school or ten commandments in the courthouse, how the Supreme Court should act – any of the things where we wonder about a conflict between God’s will and the demands of empire – all of these details of God’s will become simpler, less divisive and less expensive, when we focus on the whole will of God. When we give back to God what is God’s: our whole lives and selves.
Even decisions about our money become clearer and less troublesome when we put the love of God and will of God above everything else. In fact, when we seek to give back to God what is God’s – to offer our selves and our community to God – our currency can be a powerful tool.
Because money often stands in for freedom, choice, control, security and other things we value, it’s a powerful tool for directing our hearts and minds and souls.
And this is where we need to actually look at our currency.
If you’ve got cash on you, take it out, and look at it closely.
You’ll see images on it – mostly presidents or Treasury secretaries, plus Ben Franklin – and the prominent title of The United States. But there’s something else on every piece of US currency in circulation right now. The motto “In God We Trust.”
Our currency may “belong” to the US Treasury, by the “image and title” standards Jesus applies, but US currency also makes a claim on our behavior – our attitudes and our actions; a claim on those of us who use that currency.
With “In God We Trust,” our cash actually claims that we already do what Jesus teaches: put our whole trust in God.
The cash in our wallets actually asks us: How can we use this currency – how can I use it, you use it – to put our trust in God, to increase our trust in God?
We’re starting our preparation for Consecration Sunday today – starting a four-week journey as a congregation where we consider how God is inviting us to give so that we grow in God’s love. And today, Jesus invites us to look at our currency and consider how we can use our money to grow in our trust of God.
Jesus invites us to use our currency to act on that trust – to continually, proactively, give back to God what is God’s: our whole selves. To love God with heart, body and spirit, a love of God which also loves one another.
And as we do that, the other questions that trouble us will fall away: our obligations to one another and our community can be honored as a part of our trust in God, our love of our neighbors.
It’s no trouble at all to give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, if we know with all the love of our heart, mind, and soul, that we, and Caesar, and everything that belongs to any of us always, and first of all, belongs to God.