I am thankful for this Sunday’s Gospel because it reminded me that I had to pay for my car insurance!
I was absorbed by the readings, trying to figure out this well-known passage where Jesus invites us to: “Give to the Emperor the things that are the Emperor’s” aka “Give to Cesar the things that belong to Cesar”, wondering what was the deep spiritual meaning behind all of this, when I was reminded that maybe this is all there is to it, or that at least it is really the starting point: You have to pay your taxes, and you have to pay the bills – and so maybe I needed to interrupt my meditation to actually catch up on my payments and send my check before reaching the deadline.
The Gospel is very real life oriented, isn’t it? It’s actually not the first time that the question of taxes shows up in Matthew’s. If you go back to chapter 17, you will find this funny and strange passage where Jesus pays his taxes and Peter’s taxes by sending him to retrieve a coin in a fish’s mouth! I wonder how many sacred texts in the world, how many religious books and how many theological essays deal with the problem of taxes. It seems so trivial, doesn’t it? When we think of spirituality, we may think more easily of Moses on the top of the mountain, like in this passage of the Old Testament we have just read: Moses praying and pleading for God’s presence, asking God to show God’s glory, asking God to show God’s face.
But so much for spirituality: In the Gospel today what Jesus shows us is a coin, and a coin with the Emperor’s face on it.
So is Jesus just making fun of us – at least making fun of the Pharisees and the Herodians – or is it the beginning of something? Could paying your taxes be the beginning of spirituality? Well, it reminded me the whole issue about finding out whether the President of the United States pay his taxes or not. Certainly, to be the President of the United States you have to do much more than pay your taxes. Yet, if the President of the United States does not pay his taxes, that does not reflect well, does it? That may mean there could be more problematic issues behind that – if he is not able to do this little thing. And so maybe, this is the same for us, as children of God: If we don’t do this little thing that is called pay our taxes and bills, and deal with real life problems where money is involved.
It is very interesting if you pay attention to the text, that the Pharisees ask Jesus if it is “lawful” to pay taxes to the Emperor. That should be the other way around, right? Rather, they should ask: “Is it unlawful not to pay taxes”? But of course, the Pharisees aren’t talking about civil law – in Matthew’s when it comes down to the law, it’s always about God’s law, the Torah. And of course there was a conflict between God’s law and the civil law, the only God of Israel, and Cesar Augustus who claimed to be God on earth. Yet I guess, it was also a good excuse for the righteous ones – to criticize the Emperor so they could get away with the rest. A good excuse not to pay taxes, a good excuse to keep their money.
And that’s what the Pharisees did, didn’t they? We saw that a few weeks ago, when they started to question Jesus’s authority because they didn’t want to listen to what Jesus had to say. Well, in the same way, they questioned the Emperor’s authority – probably not so much because they were such religious and God fearing people who were afraid to do an unfaithful deed by supporting the Emperor in sending him money, rather my guess is they didn’t want to pay taxes because they didn’t want to pay taxes! They question the fairness of the taxes because didn’t want to give out their money. This is what we do as well, I guess: When we don’t want to pay for something, we always find a reason why we should have it for free: the meal was cold, the shirt was torn, I only parked there for ten minutes…
Well, in response to all those arguments, Jesus grab a coin and shows it to them, show it to us today.
To discuss money, Jesus grabs a coin and shows it to us. Take a good look at it. He makes it real and what I hear when I hear him saying to give back to the Emperor’s what’s the Emperor’s is this: It’s just money and money is just a thing and the Emperor can have his thing, why do you care about it.
This scene in the Gospel actually reminded me of a scene in a movie I re-watch recently: In The Wild. This movie tells the story of this young man, Christopher McCandless, who decided after he graduated from college to leave human society as an act of defiance towards his father but also as he pursues a more authentic way of living. And so there is this scene when he gets ready to leave for a new life in the forest: After abandoning his car, on the side of the road he tears down his credits cards and he burns up his money. And then he grabs his backpack and he is on his way – and you can’t help thinking of course: What is he going to do? How is he going to live? But I think what’s really striking and shocking for us is this message that comes across: Money is just a thing after all, a thing among so many others in the world. Like paper it can burn, credit card can be destroyed, you can lose your wallet or your purse and still be alive and on your way.
And to me, although the passage of the Gospel has been used many times to talk about church and civil society, the difference between God’s commandments and federal law, and what’s really moral or not, deep down to me this passage is probably just about money. To me, Jesus does not let the Pharisees and the Herodians catch him in their trap about religion and politics, because to me Jesus knows that in the end the real problem is money. And this is the lesson I believe Jesus teaches them by showing this coin to his audience, and to us: Jesus reminds us that money is just a thing.
Money is a thing that people use and if all belong to God, Jesus, not without a good sense of humor, casts a doubt on the fact that maybe money just belongs to the Emperor because God really does not care for money. At least to me one thing is sure: Jesus really didn’t like money. He despised it. You cannot serve two Masters, he said many times to his disciples.
And so, I wonder what it would be like for us to think of money only as a thing. A thing we need, of course, especially when we live in society, but just a thing among other things. To see money as a thing rather than seeing all the fantasies we attach to money. When I see a few bills, I don’t see a piece of paper, you know, I see dinner outside, a new pair of shoes, maybe a plane ticket. I see entertainment, freedom and peace of mind. Some see power, influence and success. But it’s like whatever you dream of, money can give you. And so to most of us money is not just a thing, it’s the means, the magic mediator between where we are and where we need to be. Without even realizing it, we make it our God.
I grew up in a household where money was sacred. Not that we had so much of it. But I remember vividly one day I had a few cents sitting there on my desk and as I didn’t know what to do with them, I put them in the trash can. Somehow my father found out and gave me a lesson I would never forget. He had worked hard to make this money, he told me, it was insulting to his work that I would get rid of these coins, this money could buy us gas and food and clothing. I didn’t know, I was a child – for me, these coins were just a thing. As I look back on this episode, I am sure that had I had gotten rid of a few dollars toy, it wouldn’t have mattered at all. But it was money. And like so many of us, my father didn’t see a thing, a few dirty coins of little to no value. Rather, he saw, like so many of us, all the fantasies we attach to money: work, duty and suffering but also life, freedom and maybe even salvation. In my household we were very devoted Christian, yet I realize we also worshiped money.
And I imagine our hearts were torn between what money could buy us and what God could give us.
And so to me that’s why Jesus reminds the Pharisees to pay their taxes. Because by letting go of this money they find good reasons to hold on to, they can let go of what they think money can do for them. Send back the money to the Emperor’s because money is just a thing – it’s not your God and it’s not your king. And this could be the beginning of spirituality. Money is powerful, but only in its own realm. If we’re looking for God, if we’re seeking God’s face, maybe we don’t need to grow a bear and go hike on a mountain like Moses, maybe we just have to realize by concrete acts that money is just a thing. Yes we need to know that money can buy us a better health, but we also need to know that it cannot give us life, yes money can buy us a house, but it can’t give us a home, yes money can buy us relationships but it cannot give us real friendship. We have to get rid of all the dreams and all the fantasies to realize that money is just money – and we all need money when we are in society but it’s not God’s thing: It won’t save us, it won’t heal us, it won’t love us back, it won’t give us life. Only God will.
So maybe we can remember that next time we have to pay for something we really don’t want to pay for, whether it’s our taxes or a parking ticket, or our insurance. It’s not just an unpleasant daily task, or an anxiety we have to deal with, it can also be the beginning of spirituality, it can be taking a step towards God. By letting go of all what we believe money can give us, we open ourselves to better things only God can bring us…Well, at least I could be a comforting thought!