Currency With God
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
My youngest son is about to become a driver, which, of course, he is looking forward to, but that brings up the need for a car. So, we were
discussing cars, and car repair costs, and he made the comment that he didn’t want to get a “fixer-upper” car that would always be needing repairs.
I told him he didn’t have a choice. Until he can afford a recent model, he will have to count on repairs. That’s just the way it is; cars and their many parts wear out and break down.
Everything wears out and breaks down. Lawnmowers do. Refrigerators do. Computers do. People do.
Life is uncertain and scary; our own lives are fragile. The lives of our children and grand-children are fragile. There are no guarantees attached to the umbilical cord. We feel vulnerable.
We should feel vulnerable; we are. Even if a person has been blessed with decent health, intelligence, and a job, and enough good sense and discipline to plan and save for the future, other people’s selfish, risky, greedy behavior can plunge the whole economy into a tailspin and ruin it all. It’s scary. We feel insecure.
This is old news; as old as humanity. The specific threats we face today may be new, like a pension funds invested in mortgage-backed securities, and terrorists on airplanes, but the basic fact of vulnerability and insecurity goes all the way back to the cave-men.
So we do what humans have always done: seek security. The cave man takes a tree branch and makes a club and rolls big rocks in front of the cave entrance to keep out the dinosaurs. Later, people make cities surrounded by stone walls. Stone barriers are good against triceratops and arrows, but they cannot keep the locusts off of your grain nor can they guarantee the rain.
So, insecure people have always gone to the gods. They go to the gods that make all that noise behind the dark clouds and throw down those
alarming lightning bolts when they decide to send the rain.
They go to the gods of the ghosts, beyond the land of the living, who seem so insatiably hungry for more colleagues. The objective has always been to figure out what the gods wanted and to give it to them, to keep them fed and happy. It’s always been about survival; about security for vulnerable mortals.
Enough for security
But no one has ever been secure enough. How could we ever be? Even emperors die. Even if the walls we built have kept back the bad guys, and even if the food has never run out, even if every drought has been survived and every winter has passed, eventually, we all know it’s going to end. No one has ever been able to overcome the ultimate insecurity of mortality.
And that is why there is never enough to achieve security. There is no such thing. No matter how high the wall has been built, no matter how much is in the bank, no matter how much the estate is worth, in the end, it wont’ have been enough. Even Bill Gates will die. Even Warren Buffett will die.
It has to leave us asking what then really matters? If we mistake what matters, then the quest for security in “enough” will consume us.
Once humans were clever enough to create currency as a symbolic stand-in for real “stuff” the currency took on a god-like quality. It makes perfect sense; the provider of security ultimately must be divine.
Coins in the ancient world had a location commonly called the “god spot.” The face of the god or his or her symbol was engraved there.
When Jesus asked the ones who came to entrap him for a coin, he was specific. He asked to see the one that was used to pay the emperor’s tax. So they produced a denarius coin. Whose graven image do you suppose was there in the god-spot? Well, surprise, surprise: the emperor Tiberius himself.
Many of those coins have been found. There, in the god-spot, is the profile of the face of Tiberius, surrounded by the words, “Tiberius Caesar son of the divine Augustus.”
For all the “lucky” people of their empire, Rome was doing what the gods had always done: providing security. As a matter of fact, the emperors were actually destined to become gods when they died. As a matter of fact, they were very nearly gods while they lived – this “divine-emperor” concept was spreading like mold on a dark, damp wall in those days.
So Jesus asks for the coin and has two specific questions about it.
20 “Whose head is this, and whose title? 21 They answered, “The emperor’s.”
The coin bears the image of Tiberius, and proclaims
“Tiberius Caesar son of the divine Augustus.”
“Tiberius Caesar” son of a god; destined to be a god. The graven image alone makes the coin blasphemous – a direct violation of the second commandment; the inscription leaves no room for doubt.
Asking the right question
The question they came to Jesus with is not a tax question; this is a theological question. If Caesar is God, pay homage to him with the cash he is claiming credit for providing. So, Jesus says:
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s.”
But for Jesus, there is an either-or condition at stake here that goes way beyond taxes. Either emperor Caesar is God, as the propaganda on his coin proclaims, or he is not. And if he is not, then,
“give to God the things that are God’s.”
What belongs to God?
What things are God’s? To God belongs our trust, for he alone is our security. Just as he is the provider for the “birds of the air” and the “lilies of the field,” only more so, God is our provider. He is “our Father who is in heaven,” who alone is the source of our “daily bread.”
He is the one who:
“makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matt. 5:44)
“in him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)
Security Changes Everything
This security in God, our Heavenly Father changes everything. For us, it changes what matters. Because we rest secure in the knowledge that we have a Father in heaven who loves us and cares for us, we are set free from the anxiety of accumulating “enough.”
This security we have in a loving God affects everything from our personal use of time to our family budget. It affects our perspective on our neighbors and our concept of who is our neighbor.
It affects our view of everything from how we care for people to how we care for the planet we share and which our children and their children will inherit.
It affects our sense of personal as well as national priorities, even our understanding of foreign policy and criminal justice.
Because God is the source of our security, we will be thankful for everything: for doctors and hospitals and advances in medicines and therapies,
but in the end, our security is not in them. In the end, they make no one immortal.
We will be thankful for every good material gift we are able to enjoy in this life, for food, clothing and shelter, for toys and technology, for trips and recreations, knowing that none of it really matters.
Because our security is in God our Heavenly Father, because he is both our Source and our Destination, then what matters to us is what matters to him. We value what he values. We honor what he honors. We love what he loves. We grieve when he grieves. We rejoice when he rejoices.
Learning from Jesus
We look to Jesus, to learn all of this. What mattered to Jesus is what matters to God. He taught us to rejoice in finding lost sheep and including them into the fold. He showed us how to honor the poor, the weak, the young, the sick and to be instruments of peace, healing, justice and reconciliation for them all.
He taught us to know and love God as Heavenly Father, to practice prayer and generosity, forgiveness and hospitality, generosity and peace-making.
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s,”
– because that’s not what ultimately matters anyway.
“and to God the things that are God’s.”