October 19, 2014
“What’s in your wallet?” I want to give credit to the good folks at WorkingPreacher.org for the idea for the title of today’s sermon. One of the commentators on their podcast mentioned this as a potential title, and I jumped on it. Unless you watch absolutely no television whatsoever, it’s hard to not know those four words. “What’s in your wallet?” This has become a cultural catch phrase due to some funny commercials featuring Vikings and a few celebrity spokespersons; Alec Baldwin and Samuel L. Jackson, to name two. The ads are for the Capital One credit card, and it promotes the idea that shopping and banking with this particular credit card earns you rewards. Capital One makes even Christmas shopping easier, and earns the user so many travel rewards that you can bring your whole Viking gang on trips. Each commercial, whatever its particulars, ends with that catch phrase, “What’s in your wallet?”
Of course the point of the commercial is to get people to apply for Capital One credit cards. But I think that the underlying message it makes is that it is not enough to just have a credit card, the brand of credit card counts. The name, the image that is emblazoned on that credit card also counts; maybe even more than the card itself. So what’s in your wallet?
This idea is played out in our story from Matthew’s gospel. For the first time in a while, our passage isn’t centered on Jesus responding to his questioners with a parable. The Pharisees have been confronting Jesus since he came into Jerusalem and into the temple. But this confrontation is different. Not only are the Pharisees trying to trap Jesus, this time the Herodians have joined in as well. We don’t read about the Herodians on a regular basis. In fact I think this story may be the one time they are mentioned at all. Perhaps in a casual reading of this story, we might just accept their presence without question, but it is significant that this group we know little about are siding with the Pharisees against Jesus. Consider the name; Herodians suggests Herod. Herodians were Jewish leaders who allied themselves with Herod and the Roman Empire. The Romans were the occupiers, the alien force who held them and their land under the empirical thumb. Just as tax collectors were despised and given their own special category for sinfulness because they collected the taxes demanded by the Roman government, the Herodians would not have been popular or loved. Certainly the Pharisees, the religious leadership and authorities, would not have cared for them. But here they stand together trying to trap Jesus. Picture the most extreme leadership of the Tea Party uniting forces with the most extreme knee-jerk Liberal in the Democratic Party to defeat a common enemy, and you may have an idea of how unusual and how radical this confrontation in the temple was.
Both groups hated Jesus. Both were threatened by him. He’d been stirring people up for a long time, but before he was a nuisance, an annoying thorn in their collective side. Now he had become dangerous. So, as Matthew tells it, they plotted to entrap him.
“‘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?’”
Jesus knows what they are trying to do. The text says that he was “aware of their malice.” He turns the question back on them. He asks them to show him the coin that they used to pay the tax to the emperor. They produce a denarius, and he asks them to tell him whose head and whose title is stamped on the coin. The emperor’s. Then, Jesus says perhaps some of his most well-known words. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.
Over and over again, this has been interpreted through the lens of separation of church and state. See, even Jesus implies that there is a dividing line between them. The two should not mix. Keep them separated. Yet that kind of political and religious separation is our modern understanding. Given the context and the culture of the time, I doubt that anyone listening to Jesus or even the first hearers and readers of Matthew’s gospel would have thought in those terms. Religious law was the law. There would have been no separation between the two. But that’s also why the empirical tax was so odious.
This tax was the Roman census or the “head tax” that was instituted when Judea became a Roman province. The tax was not only considered unfair, it went against Torah. The land of Israel belonged to God alone. Since Caesar was a usurper, paying the tax was considered an act of disobedience to God. Not only would Caesar’s image have been on the denarius, the inscription would most likely have read something like, “In Caesar we trust.” Caesar was not just the governing ruler; as emperor, he was, for all intents and purposes, a god. So paying the Roman head tax meant that the Jewish people consistently broke the first two commandments. They put another god before the Lord God, and they used a coin that bore a graven image. When Jesus asked to see the coin, he essentially asked the religious leaders what was in their wallet. How interesting that they could produce this coin which went against the Law and he couldn’t. How interesting that they could produce this particular coin in the temple. The hypocrisy of that, of the religious leaders having a coin like in this in the holiest of places, was not lost on Jesus.
Even when this passage isn’t interpreted as a reason for separation of church and state, it is used as a way for believers to find their way through a complex world that is driven by money. Just give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and the rest goes to God. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But real life is a different beast altogether. We are, like it or not, driven by money. It is a reality of our lives. You need a certain amount of money just to survive. If you don’t have it, survival can be tough to say the least. I get enough calls every week asking for assistance with utilities and rent to know how necessary having money is, and, more importantly, what it means not to have it.
Yet we don’t like to talk about money in church, not unless it’s stewardship emphasis season. Even with stewardship we’d prefer that the money talk only happen on that one Sunday. Once that Sunday is over, we can return to not talking about money the rest of the year. But money is being talked about in this passage. While I think that it is a critical element of this confrontation, what I really think is being called into question is allegiance. Perhaps when Jesus questioned the Pharisees and the Herodians about what was in their wallets, he was also questioning their allegiance? Who do you belong to; God or the emperor?
Jesus was the master at turning questions meant to trick him back onto those doing the questioning. But the question of allegiance, the question of priorities is also asked of us? Who do we belong to? Where does our allegiance lie?
We might glibly answer that we, of course, belong to God. Along with that everything we have, everything we are, everything in God’s creation belongs to God. Yet how does our answer play out in our daily lives?
I don’t really know. I’m not sure that it does in my life. I certainly don’t think there are any easy answers to the question of my allegiance. I know that just making a separate check list of what belongs in which category doesn’t really work. In theory it should. I’ve tried. But in reality, those kinds of categories are ambiguous at best. Like it or not, as much as I believe and proclaim that my allegiance is to God first, money is always an issue. Money is a part of our lives and its necessity is not going away. Part of being citizens is being responsible for taxes and paying our bills, etc. But if we claim and that we belong to God, shouldn’t that impact how we view money and how we spend it?
Again, there are no easy answers. We live in a consumer culture, and I am a consumer. But I am a child of God, first. If I can remember that, and try to live in light of that, then perhaps how I spend my money will reflect that truth more closely.
David Lose told a story about a former pastor who encouraged her parishioners to engage in an interesting experiment. One Sunday, they found markers in each of their pews. She invited them to take a marker and make a cross on a credit card or debit card, or even a bill or coin, and look at that cross whenever they shop. Lose said that he still spent money, but he began to notice that when he shopped he was more mindful of what he was buying. He was more intentional about his purchases. When he pulled out his credit card with the cross on it, he found himself asking, does this purchase reflect my faith? Does it make manifest that I, and everything I have, belongs to God?
I need to ask those questions of myself. When I pull out this card, does what I’m buying make manifest that I belong to God?
At the beginning of this sermon, I quoted the Capital One commercials. “What’s in your wallet?” The point of the commercials is that what’s in your wallet, the credit cards you carry, the brand you proclaim, counts. They’re right, but not about credit cards or brand names. We proclaim who we give our allegiance to, who we belong to, in all that we say and in all that we do; including how we spend our money. What does our spending say about our allegiance? Who do we belong to? What’s in your wallet?
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.