In God We Trust
Year A, Pentecost 19
A couple of years ago there was a big rumor that circulated that indicated that the US Treasury was attempting to remove “In God we trust” from the newest dollar coins. This phrase has been on American coins since the 1950’s and many people believed that this removal was just further proof of the secularization of America. They showed pictures of the new dollar coins with no “In God we trust” on the coin. It was true that this phrase did not appear on the face of the coin. It was inscribed on the side of the coins.
It is interesting to me how riled up people get about things like what is on the face of a coin. I am not sure changing what our coins say will make much of a difference for people’s faith, but there are some people who are very passionate about this issue. Currency and what was on currency was a pretty big deal in Jesus’ day as well. In many ways, it had much bigger ramifications than it does today.
In the Gospel story, The Pharisees and Herodians (who were supporters of Herod, the Roman ruler of the Jewish people) were coming together for the sole purpose of trapping Jesus. Typically the Pharisees and the Herodians didn’t really hang out. The Pharisees were the religious leaders, the experts on Jewish law. The Herodians were a political party that supported the right of Herod the Great and his descendants to rule Israel. They supported the Roman leadership while the Pharisees and the Jewish people resented the Roman occupation. The two of them coming together was like Fox News and MSNBC joining forces.
They had a plan that seemed foolproof. They would ask Jesus about taxes. There is rarely a good way to discuss taxes. This particular tax they were asking about was a tax that supported the Roman occupation. It was offensive to the Jewish people, many of whom supported Jesus. If Jesus answered the question in a way that indicated that he supported the tax, he would alienate his Jewish followers. If he did not, he could be accused of rebelling against Rome. Instead of answering whether it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, he asked for the coin…the coin that would be used to pay this particular tax. You see, he did not have the coin. The people asking the question did. They were people of means. Jesus was not a man who carried money.
They brought him a denarius. We know what was on that coin because archaeologists have found them. It had a picture of the emperor with the inscription: “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus Pontifex Maximus.” Augustus was a smart man and a very effective emperor. When he took power, he made himself not only political leader, but a religious one as well. He wanted to be a god. When he died, he was a declared a god, making his son, the son of god. It was his son’s picture on the coin. Even possessing this coin was considered idolatry in the Jewish faith because it portrayed another god. The Pharisees should not have even had the coin, but they did. When Jesus asked for the coin he was proving that he was not the pawn of the Roman government. They were…especially if they were allying themselves with the Herodians.
Jesus knew very well whose picture was on the coin and he knew what it meant. He did not want any part of it. Every emperor made their own coin when they came to power with their own picture. We don’t do that. The people on our coins are great leaders from the history of our country. But these coins changed with the leadership. When Jesus said, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s…” he was essentially saying if this coin is marked with Tiberius’ face, then by all means, give it back to him. It was both a practical answer and a theological one. Then he said something that probably left people a little confused. “Give….to God the things that are God’s.” Well technically that would be everything. Everything on earth is a creation of God…which means everything is God’s. That would then mean that the coin with the blasphemous image belongs to God…or does it?
This is the question that we have been struggling with for millennia and I am not sure that struggle has gotten us anywhere. We say that everything belongs to God but then we argue about church property and who owns it…the diocese or the church? We worry about pledges and pledges to the diocese. We debate how much of our money we should give to the diocese and how much of our income we should give to the church. We say everything belongs to God, but I am not sure we really understand it. That is understandable because it is a really hard thing to wrap your mind around when we live in a culture that is all about ownership. We own houses. We own clothing. If it is ours, we own it.
Perhaps we should consider it from a different perspective. Perhaps ownership or even belonging isn’t the best word to describe it all. Let’s consider where Jesus started this conversation. He asked the people whose image was on the coin. The image was a man, a powerful man but a sinful and mortal man. He was a man who made himself into a god, but never served a god or humanity. He was a man who determined his worth by the coins that were made in his image.
Jesus Christ would never ask us to put his image on a coin. God would not ask that. God put his image somewhere else….somewhere far more valuable. He put his image on us, on humans. And what is amazing about that image is it looks different on all of us. We are not coins stamped with the same image. We don’t belong to God like property. We are children of God designed in his image so that we might love him and love one another.
Yet we depart from that image time and time again. Like the newest dollar coin, we have relegated God to the periphery of our lives. God is on the side where no one can quite see him. We can feel better about ourselves because it is still there, imprinted on the side like an obligation that we keep. But that is not where God belongs. God belongs front and center in our life. And if God is truly front and center then we would not debate about percentages or ownership. God would no longer be a priority in our life; God would be the priority. Everything else would exist in the shadow of that one priority. We would not merely give a pledge to our church, we would pledge our lives to God. We would not need our coins to affirm who we trust. There would be no question. It is in God whom we trust. It is in God’s image whom we are made. The rest is just details…coins in our pocket.