Whose Head: What’s In Your Wallet?

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.​

Matthew 22:15-22

My sermon from the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (October 22, 2017) on Matthew 22:15-22. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.


One of the “fun” questions my wife and I ask each other, usually as we’re coming home from a night out and there’s babysitter waiting at our house, is the question “do you have money?” And that’s a great question because I usually don’t. I don’t really carry cash. Instead, I’m a little old skool and I carry plastic. I came of age when credit card companies would literally throw cards at you during your first week in college. Over time, I discovered which cards gave me the most reward points and which restaurants didn’t overtly complain when my friends and I plopped down a pile of credit cards to pay for a meal. I’ll admit I didn’t always use credit cards the way I should. And there were times when paying the minimum balance was the only thing I could do. But I’m now at a place in my life where a piece of plastic, or an app on my phone connected to that piece of plastic, is how I physically pay for almost everything. And this credit is how I get to live my life. I’m a homeowner because of credit. I drive my mini-van because of credit. And I’m a pastor because credit let me figure out how to pay (and still pay) for seminary. Credit, to me, is a kind of promise. But it’s also more than that because credit creates relationships. I recently learned that credit and the rating agencies that support what credit can do came into being because people with money to lend and people who wanted that money needed a way to trust one another. That trust became a bond, a kind of faith, between people, moneylenders, and more. But this kind of faith comes with a lot of fine print. There are, in theory, rules everyone needs to follow. And when we borrow, we agree to be rated, to have the details of our life sniffed out so that we can be assigned a score, a number, that tells others our worth. Each credit card transaction is really an agreement, establishing a relationship, and using generations of legalese and case law to describe, in theory, how that relationship should work out. So last night, when I used my credit card to pay $1.89 for 2 cans of blacks beans, I entered into a faith-based relationship with Stop’N Shop and VISA – where the terms and conditions of that relationship were laid out in long bit of fineprint that I’ll never read. My regular, everyday life, needed those two cans of beans so I bound myself to an odd kind of faith that generates relationships and assigns value. I didn’t really think of the implications this all means when I inserted my credit card into a machine. But in light of today’s reading from Matthew, maybe I should.

Jesus’ words here are pretty famous. Even my non-Christian friends quote about what to give to the emperor and what to give to God. When we take Jesus’ words out of context, we can make these words mean whatever we want them too. But if we want to listen to what Jesus is saying, I think we should copy Jesus and do what he does in this passage. He doesn’t just talk to the Pharisees and Herodians, these religious and political groups trying to get Jesus into trouble. He asked them for a coin. And when they dig that coin out of their pockets to show him, I imagine Jesus actually taking that coin and holding it in his hand. A denarius is a Roman coin. And like our coins, it’s covered in symbols and images telling a story. We don’t know exactly what coin it was that Jesus held in his hands but it probably looked like one of our quarters. On one side was a picture of the head of Tiberius, the Roman Emperor, and it’s surrounded by words. The words tell us that Tiberius’ dad is Augustus and that Augustus was a god. On the other side of the coin was a picture of a woman, the Roman goddess of peace, holding an olive branch and a spectre. This peace would be a peace Rome would bring to the entire world… once it conquered it. The coin was more than just a piece of metal used to buy things. The coin was making a statement and a promise. The world, it said, belonged to Rome and the son of a god was sitting on its throne. The Roman war machine, it’s way of life, and it’s beliefs were the source of peace, prosperity, and hope in the world. These coins were worth something because Rome, with all it’s power, was worth everything. The worth of everyone in that crowd, according to that coin, was centered on Rome and nothing else. The people gathered around Jesus mattered because Rome defined their worth.

Now, I’ve never used a denarius to pay for anything. I’ve never called myself a Pharisee or a Herodian and I’m sure you haven’t either. We could, if we wanted to, leave Jesus’ words on the page. But what if we didn’t? What if listened to Jesus, took out our dollars, our checkbooks, our credit cards, and actually looked at the claim they make on our lives? My favorite credit card is dark steel gray, with a chip, two foil logos, and my name on the front. On the back is a magnetic strip, another foil logo, my name again, the credit card number, a few phone numbers, a website, and a statement that says “use of this card is subject to the cardmember agreement.” And then right there in the middle, is the place where I signed; where I agreed, in theory, to everything that card represents. I agreed to use it and let companies collect my information. I agreed to let them make judgments based on the information they collect. I agreed to support this even though their judgments about who is worthy of credit and who isn’t is still impacted by the legacy of racism, sexism, ageism, and predatory practices that sometimes help me and sometimes don’t. I even agreed, in some ways, to not even complain when I go through my yearly ritual of canceling my card and getting a new one because it’s number was stolen from me. To live the life I want to live, I am caught up in a system of credit that, because it’s created by humans, is never far from sin. We didn’t create credit or the sin of greed and racism and other systemic issues that infect the idea of credit or our use of it. And I don’t think any of us really asked to have our worth defined on an arbitrary scale from 300 to 850. Yet the value this system gives us can, through our participation in it, end up defining who we value…and who we don’t. Any faith, any tradition, any idea that gives us value impacts how we view the world and our neighbors. The coin the crowd brought to Jesus claimed that their value depended on Rome. But Jesus asked for this coin during the last week of his life while he was teaching in the Temple. Jesus is, at this very moment in the gospel according to Matthew, standing in the place God promised to dwell and he’s already in the shadow of the Cross. Our ultimate worth isn’t defined by our credit rating, or by our wealth, or by the systems of power and authority that we, as human beings, create, maintain, and reinforce without even thinking about them. Our ultimate worth is defined by the One standing there with that coin in his hand and who faces everything that coin represents: our false trust in power and might, our false belief that violence will bring us peace, and our complicity in the ways our life denies what’s life giving for those around us. Jesus takes all of that and heads to the Cross. He dies because of the things we value, but rises to show what God values instead. In our baptism [and even in the baptism of a young child like —-], our old value system, our old way of life, our old way of seeing who is important and who isn’t, is replaced by a faith that has no fineprint. This faith is a gift that says we’re loved. It’s a statement that we matter more than our credit score. Jesus gives us this gift knowing we won’t always know what to do in every situation and that we will, without thinking, participate in systems and a way of life that impacts others in negative way. Yet the gift he gives us is grounded in the choices God makes and the relationship God chooses. Jesus is loyal to us not because we will always be loyal to him – but because Jesus never gives up on those he loves. He loves us. He loves you. He loves this world [And he already loves —-]. We are given a faith that calls us to lean on God, to lean on Jesus, and lean on love even when our life going forward feels unsure, unsafe, and unknown. Jesus’ love is one credit card we can never max out and it will never be canceled on us, no matter what our credit score becomes. And when we lean on Jesus, we can finally discover how much Jesus value’s us and we will stop seeing ourselves and our neighbors as people only worth their 3 number score. We will see ourselves and our neighbors as Jesus sees us – as people worthy of a love that never stops giving.