The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire
Readings, Proper 24A:
When I was a kid, I collected coins. I collected coins because my Dad collected pennies—especially wheat pennies and even the rare Indian head. Every few months, he would sit me down in front of the pickle jar where he’d toss his loose change when it would get full. I would sort all the coins by denomination, and look for dimes that were pure silver. I’d separate out the Canadian coins because Dad told me they were junk—sorry, Canadians. Then I’d go through the pennies and look for any that were either wheat pennies or steel or bronze pennies from 1943 and 1944 during the war. I learned about the obverse and reverse sides of the coins, the mint marks, and other features. And voila! A coin collector was born—a skinny little girl reading coin collector books in the library like the little weirdo I was.
My collection expanded when Dad would take me to the flea market at the Fairgrounds. Dad himself didn’t believe in paying money for coins, but I got a paper route when I was eight and started mowing lawns and babysitting when I was ten, so he’d let me do it. At first, I just collected US coins—buffalo nickels, Eisenhower dimes, Kennedy half dollars, Liberty dollars, and uncirculated sets.
Then I got to collect coins from foreign countries. My dad worked for American Airlines as a mechanic, and even though we were working class, we could fly for practically nothing as long as we dressed up in case the only open seats were in first class, which of course made all the employees stick out like sore thumbs.
So I first travelled overseas at age 7—my mom took my brother and myself out of school a week early that spring and we travelled first to New York then to Rome, where we spent several days, staying in inexpensive penziones, and then we flew to Amsterdam, once again staying in cheap hostels. We didn’t care. We saw the Vatican with its priceless works of art and ancient buildings. We met interesting, kind people who didn’t mock our homemade haircuts or Okie accents but found our wide-eyed excitement to be with them charming, apparently.
And now, besides the historical and sentimental value of coins, I learned about the exchange rate. This is how much each currency is worth in US dollars, and it changed daily. Since we had very little money, the timing of changing our money before each trip was important—you wanted to have the value of the other country’s currency be as low as possible in relation to a US dollar. When we went to Japan, the exchange rate was 300 yen to the dollar, which was shocking. I think the Italian lira was even worse, which is probably why so many people fling their coins into fountains in Italy. The man whose job it was to collect the coins from Trevi fountain on behalf of an Italian charity invited me into the water (which was normally forbidden) and I got to help him pick them up.
We later went to Japan, where I first saw coins with holes in them, and after high school we bummed our way around the UK and Europe, adding marks and French francs and Swiss francs to my collection. When we travelled to Ireland from the UK, I was harshly reminded of how political money could be when suddenly in the middle of the Irish sea the boat stopped accepting British pounds and only accepted Irish pounds.
All along the way, I collected a full set of the coins of each country, and added them to my collection.
My oldest coin was a tiny bronze Roman coin found in the mud of the Thames that I bought in a riverside stall, a reminder that the Romans had founded Londinium. The Romans enforced the use of their currency throughout their empire. And sometimes, they would design the coins in particular ways to remind the subject peoples of their surrender. Their coins became part of the way to grind their subject people under their heels. And so it was with the coin that stars in this week’s gospel.
See, the Romans demanded that every single inhabitant in their conquered territories pay a tribute every year to Rome—a tribute that would be used to pay the soldiers and officials who oppressed the native people. Only Roman coins could be used, and so local money had to be exchanged for Roman money, which further increased the cost of the tribute, because the money exchangers would always skim a percentage for themselves. The entire process was designed to be at the very least humiliating as well as expensive, because the tribute penny, as it was called, was actually worth an entire day’s wages. And when you are living hand to mouth, giving up a day’s wages means you give up food for you and your children for that day. Plus, you are funding your own oppression. And, if you are Jewish, you are doing it with coins that violate the commandment about having no graven images, since the obverse of these coins usually features the emperor’s head with the claim, in Latin, that he was the “son of god.”
It is here that I remind us that the word “politics” itself is NOT a negative word. Politics becomes negative when leaders move from tending to simply administering the benefits of society to all citizens, to using the operation of government in an unjust way, as a way to make people feel powerless. The gospel is political in the best sense. The crucifixion of Jesus is political in the worst sense. And in between these two political axes but definitely on the negative side is the issue of the use of Roman coins and paying that Roman tax.
So when Jesus’s opponents question him about whether to pay the Roman occupation tax or not, they are still asking him about authority, as they have been doing throughout Matthew’s gospel. But they are asking Jesus a political question. And Jesus responds so snarkily, I just love it. Did you catch that snark? The Pharisees believe the very coin itself is violation of the commandments and is thereby tainted, and so Jesus makes them acquire one and hand it over. Probably like it was something dead. Brilliant! The Herodians are collaborators with Rome, so they are watching to see if Jesus publicly espouses resistance to the empire so that they can tell their boss, the puppet king Herod, so that he can tell his Roman bosses and get Jesus arrested for rebellion. See? Totally political.
In the translation I first heard as a child for this story, Jesus asks whose image is on the coin. They acknowledge that it is the current emperor’s. But hold that thought of the question of image for a moment.
Jesus’s famous dictum “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's” may have been taken by many to be an indictment of the Roman empire. It was. But more important was the second half of Jesus’s statement: give to God the things that are God’s.
If we think about this statement creating two neatly delineated piles, we are in error. Even that denarius, stamped with the emperor’s face, represented not just the empire, but also the precious energy and time that was expended in earning it. Money is, of itself, neither tainted nor holy, nor are the human systems that money represents. But neither money nor economic systems have ever created the wonder of a single newborn day or created a single life.
So some people ignore the political nature of the situation itself, and take Jesus’s statement completely out of context, forgetting that he is adroitly evading a political trap. Or they focus on the first half of his statement and ignore the second half.
Because here’s the issue: the image of the emperor, and the currency of the emperor, represents more than just metal and denomination. It represents Roman oppression, Roman cruelty, Roman injustice, Roman war, Roman godlessness. That’s the real image of empire imprinted on those coins—scarcity, dehumanization, want. Using people until you use them up. And we STILL live under the banner of that Empire-- it's all around us.
Pay Caesar in the coin of the realm. But give to God in God’s own currency.
But what is God’s currency? It’s the opposite of Rome’s. God’s currency is grace, reconciliation, peace, justice, community, and love. It is all the blessings and goodness that is woven into creation—and into every gift God gives to God’s children. And God’s currency can be found in the image of God that each and every one of us bears from the time of creation onward—when we seek to live holy, faithful lives, guided by the summary of the law that Jesus repeats and exemplifies over and over: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. ALSO the opposite of the Roman currency of stealing from the masses to fund their gigantic war machine.
We cannot forget that we ourselves belong to God, and that everything we have comes to us from God, given to us out of love by God for not just our survival but for our flourishing. God’s currency is a currency of fearlessness because it is a currency that proclaims the profligate presence and love of God in all of creation. And the exchange rate is ALWAYS in your favor.
Holding a day’s wages in his hand, Jesus reminds us that the abundant, profligate, priceless love of God brought creation into being, and traced its way down to me and you and every living thing, binds us together and calls us into flourishing and well-being. Jesus calls us to remember whose we are, and how we use that knowledge to set the priorities in our lives. If that priority is not love, rooted in abundance and faithfulness, the love that makes us part of something greater than ourselves, all our striving is empty and our lives risk being hollowed out like a drum lying forgotten in a corner.
God’s currency is the foundation of all stewardship. We belong to God, and when we live according to God’s values, we are signs of and testimony to God’s currency in the world. A currency of more value than any dollar, mark, pound, ruble, Euro, or denarius. A currency that never loses value but remains precious and in mint condition the more it is passed around from person to person.
Whatever we give—love, forgiveness, compassion, empathy, justice, mercy, grace-- will be returned a hundred-fold. We may need to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. But let us never fail to render unto God the things that are God’s. Which is—everything that matters.