Money is always there but the pockets change; it is not in the same pockets after a change, and that is all there is to say about money. – Gertrude Stein
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The acerbic vibrancy of Gertrude Stein’s observation emanates from its flippant irony. For most of us, money is not always there, and there’s definitely much more to say. As for change, we’ll see it’s not just from one pocket to another. There’s another irony as well: this is the woman who insisted we look at a rose first and foremost for what it is, free of all of its accumulated symbolism, and now she appears to be brushing off a similar close look at currency and its many companions.
What I’ve encountered instead is that there are so many places to begin the discussion that it’s often hard to know which one to pick.
I’m going to suggest we revisit a New Testament story where Jesus is presented with a trick question about money. As it turns out, the incident demonstrates how relevant religion can be in helping us understand the workings of money. His reply is one everybody knows, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.” It’s one that’s so widely circulated when no longer really hear it, especially in its revolutionary dimensions. Let me say simply, my interpretation of that text today is quite opposite what I had been taught as a child.
I say it’s a trick question because it’s posed by opponents who flip him a seemingly innocent question about the coinage of his times. Inclusion of the story in three Biblical accounts – Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17, and Luke 20:20-26 – demonstrates its importance in the unfolding Gospel. What appears, on first glance, to be a naïve question turns out, on closer examination, to be loaded. And so does the answer.
First off, he demands to see a coin – and his accusers pull one from their pocket (or wherever they carried their cash in those days – money belt, maybe?) At any rate, that simple action reveals their failure to maintain a strict separation between their religious scruples and the pagan imagery they ostensibly abhored.
Pointedly, Jesus takes the coin and holds it at eye level. He looks at it carefully. It’s not beneath his consideration, but rather is worthy of close scrutiny.
In its historical setting, we are placed in the midst of a doctrinal dispute among Jews who are attempting to cope with Roman occupation. Not an easy situation to be in, then or now. The underlying confrontation centers on a graven image of Caesar, a mortal ruling as a presumed deity. Because Caesar heads both the government and the armies occupying Jewish homelands, Roman coins insult pious Jews with one outrage upon another, beginning with violations of the First, Second, Third, and Fifth Commandments in Exodus 20, and extending to the humiliation of being a conquered people. Notice, too, how the Tenth Commandment – covetousness – addresses both wealth and sex, a combination that is more intimately linked than many would admit; this commandment could be used to castigate Caesar’s court. To publicly denigrate the Roman coins, however, would cause Jesus to rebuke Caesar – a serious offense, indeed. Yet any other reply could be touted as a blemish in his religious fidelity: his opponents would argue Jesus isn’t strict enough! Further complicating the matter is the wide array of Jewish responses to Roman rule, ranging from zealous avoidance, at one extreme, to complicity, at the other. Any answer to the question, then, would pinpoint Jesus in one camp of contention, while rousing the ire of others. His religious message would be lost in partisan politics.
Observe, too, that this is framed as a moral question about paying taxes – a subject that bestirs passions in every era. Jesus, however, sees beneath the tax matter, and cuts to the heart of money.
Although we are far removed from the reign of the Roman empire, the more you contemplate the dispute, the more you discern applications in our own era, and the more you, too, may be bewildered and amazed by the koan Jesus gives in reply. In fact, Christians are so familiar with it in the imperative, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s,” that we fail to hear the implicit question: “Can you render unto Caesar only what is Caesar’s?”
A koan, incidentally, is an exercise employed in Zen Buddhism to help the student break through intellectual limitations and lead to a sudden flash of intuition. Often the problem is posed in a way that appears illogical or absurd, as this one must have seemed in its own time. Or, as the Jesuit John C. Haughey explains, “A parable is not weighed or analyzed. It is to be entered so that one’s world is seen in a new light.” That’s the intent of this story.
In drawing a sharp distinction between Caesar and God, Jesus insists that Caesar is not the God of Israel, their one God above all others. In his answer, there is an edge of flippancy: so just what real claim does Caesar have to anything, anyway, short of having his own army? Jesus stops just short of saying outright that Caesar is no God and leaves that conclusion to his listeners instead.
Some Biblical scholars, moreover, point to Galilee coins from around 24 C.E. that were restruck with an image of a palm branch imprinted across the Emperor Tiberius’ face as a concession to Jewish objections. The public demonstration in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday a few years later, then, can be seen as a symbol of Jewish nationalism and resistance to Roman occupation. Religion, politics, and money become a potent combination in any era.
This render-unto-Caesar passage is sometimes cited in arguing for a cavalier demeanor that would make cash unworthy of your attention. But the posture of the American cavaliers themselves – a British royalist elite who fled to colonial Virginia – created an idiosyncratic institution of racial slavery; any ruling class that largely avoids direct engagement in currency or personal labor is inevitably sustained by violence and injustice. A cavalier bearing, then, engenders an irresponsible system in which somebody else pays the consequences. In the long run, everybody loses.
Instead of concluding that money is not worth your examination, I concur with Jacob Needleman, who argues in Money and the Meaning of Life that most people fail to take the challenge seriously enough. To render unto Caesar, you must first perceive Caesar in 21st century America; he is active, in new garb.
Jesus effectively puts Caesar, money, and the powers of affluence in their place. In this perspective, every faithful believer faces a constant vigilance to recognize that everything is under God’s dominion. When Caesar or cash go their own directions, trouble ensues: the sin of greed slithers into the scene, inviting others.
For nonbelievers, the challenge can be cast as one of looking for other ways that money goes one way and deeper values go another.
Either way, the message comes through: you don’t have to worship money.
Keep an eye out for Caesar in your dealings. He appears in many guises. For instance:
How does Caesar appear in your dealings with money?
When you pay your bills, do you ever feel they become “little Caesars,” a dictatorial force of oppression? Can you look beyond Caesar to the bigger picture, to see ways money can serve other purposes? Do you see ways money can provide empowerment, joy, or other liberating energy?
Is money ever an idol, and if so, how?
How would you put Caesar in his place? And how would you keep him there?