What is money really? Did you see the front page picture in the Hampshire Gazette of a man throwing $389 of bills in the air and walking away, and people scrambling to happily pick up. He said it was a freeing thing to say it is just paper. Any decent economist will tell you it is only worth what value we give it. Money is a proxy for something else. This is why it is important to see what we put on our money, because it shows what is the real value behind the fives, tens and zeros.
For example, the when the Euro was created, the new EU had a contest to chose a design. The winner proposed European architectural time periods, the 5 Euro was Classical Greece, the 10 is Romanesque, the 20 is Gothic, all the way of the 500 is 20th Century Modern. The bills convey a common heritage in a tangible way, seen in the buildings European cities. When you have a 50 Euro in your wallet, its not just paper, you are connected to the heritage of the Renaissance.
In Canada, their dollar has a Canadian loon swimming in a lake, so their currency is often called a Loony. When you use a Loony at the Dollar Store, it is saying that the value is in the natural resources and heritage of Canada.
When the US Dollar was created, it contains Presidents and the US Seal, which portrays unfinished Pyramid with 13 rows, and the all seeing eye of Providence on top. This symbolizes the United States is watched and approved of by God, and in case you miss the symbolism it says, “In God We Trust” on our money. Agree or disagree, that dollar in your wallet is about our manifest destiny in history. Do you know what was on the Confederate dollar? There were scenes of happy slaves picking cotton, loading wagons and sailing on ships. (But the Confederacy was not really about slavery, right?) Money matters, just ask former Treasury Secretary Jacob Lue, who announced the $10 bill will get a revamp in 2020 on the 100-year anniversary of Women’s suffrage, to contain pictures of Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Procession. (All this stuff can be discovered on Wikipedia.)
Which leads us to Jesus and his clever rebuttal of the Pharisees trap. The power of the state is to collect taxes, and enforce it through threat of legal sanction or violence if necessary. Jesus either supports Rome or loses face with the crowd who resents Roman rule. Poor Jesus looks stuck. “Hey Jesus, how much are you planning to raise taxes when you get elected?” Today Jesus might say, “Pull out a dollar and tell me who is on that dollar? Do you see Martin Luther King on that dollar bill? Do you see do you Geronimo or Cesar Chavez on it? No. Its George Washington and on the back you have the eye of God watching over Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, from the pyramids which my ancestor slaves built, so render under George “Cannot tell a lie” Washington what belongs to old George, but render unto God what is God’s.”
Now imagine if this were today in America, and we lost the Cold War and the chief priest pulled out a ruble with Vladimir Putin on it. (Its just a make-believe hypothetical situation.) Now you know what the crowd around Jesus was feeling, because the denarii not only held an image of Caesar, the coin probably said, “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, Pontificus Maximus.” In other words, “high priest.” You can make the case that the Pharisee is breaking two of the Ten Commandments by carrying this coin around, “Thou Shalt not make a graven image…. Thou shalt have no other God’s before me.” This was idolatrous money.
Now remember Jesus had just a few days before turned over the tables of the money changers in the Temple, and their job was to turn Roman denarii into shekels to be used for tithes in the Temple. No idolatrous money of Caesar’s in the Temple, right? Only good Jewish shekels. However, Wikipedia blew my mind and 25 years of sermons this week. It turns out the Shekels in Jesus day were minted in the city of Tyre, and depicted the Phoenician god Baal wearing a laurel from the Olympic games. Why did they only take Tyrian shekels, I wondered, since a false god was on the coin? The Roman denarii was only 80 percent pure silver, and it turns out the shekel was 95 percent pure silver.
Jesus has turned over their tables again, exposing the real God of the Temple – known in Jesus day as Mammon. And we know Jesus said you can’t serve God and mammon, so what was Jesus urging everyone to do by telling them to render unto God what is God’s? Pay your taxes to whoever rules you, just make sure you aren’t ruled by money.
Money is a poor master. I recently read an article in Salon “7 Weird Things Monday does to your brain.” Research shows that money reduces empathy.
Seeing that someone has a sad face triggers you to feel sad, too. But if you’re rich, not so much. Michael Kraus, the co-author of a study discussed in Time, told the magazine that people with fewer economic resources are conditioned to respond to numerous vulnerabilities and threats, which means they have to be more attuned to social cues. “You really need to depend on others so they will tell you if a social threat or opportunity is coming and that makes you more perceptive of emotions.” Rich people can just sail along without worrying about so many threats, so they tend to ignore how others feel.
Here is another example, about how money decreases the sense of social contract:
Researchers at Berkeley observed crosswalks in San Francisco and found that people driving luxury cars were three times less likely than those in more modest vehicles to give the right away to pedestrians, and they were four times more likely to cut off other drivers.
Weird thing number seven on the list is that Americans tend to see wealthy people as evil doers, even while deep down admiring them and wishing they were wealthy themselves. The real deal is that money can misshape any of us. Here is some research that can happen to any of us. A study showed that when you get too much change back at the cash register, the majority of us won’t give it back when we recognize the error. Money can change us, so I wish it didn’t say, “In God we Trust.” I wish our money said “Beware, all who hold this! Use it wisely!”
So what are we to render unto God? Everything! Jesus isn’t saying this stuff over here belongs to empire and politics and this stuff over here is God and spiritual stuff. It all belongs to God. This is the subversive little seed buried in Jesus’s answer. Caesar can say anything on his stupid coin, but God has already stamped the divine image on the human soul. That is basic Genesis, Chapter One, “God created them in the divine image and likeness.” Tertullian’s commentary on this text in the 4th century said that we are like a coin, and by God’s grace we are stamped with the image of God on us, and that is what gives us our true value.
Rendering unto God requires remembering you are stamped with the image of God on you. It is not a two-sided coin with God on one side and Caesar on the other, because both sides are claiming to be a deity who demands your full allegiance. The subversive message is this: “Power interests like emperors can pressure you to do stuff you don’t believe in, like taxes. They want to stamp their image on you and sometimes you feel like you can’t escape it. Civil authority is a reality of life, but don’t forget they are not God, and will not triumph if you realize your heart and mind is already minted with the image of the God we know in Jesus the Christ. When your being is filled with God, then love exists, and love brings open spaces and possibilities. Rendering unto Caesar’s demands to me means we have some responsibilities to civil authority, law and participating in community, even though it may often be unjust. But if I render unto God what is God’s, then everything – money, politics, my love life, all of it has a divine core.
And how will I know what God really wants from me? Tune in next week, because in the next scripture lesson, Jesus is going to tell us his greatest commandment.