This episode is another of Jesus’ famous quotations found in St. Mathew’s gospel, and I believe it is valuable to share the context of this quote. Remember St. Mathew in his gospel was trying to walk a very thin line between those who believed Christians should maintain Jewish traditions versus those who believed they should cut all ties from the past. The future of the church depended heavily upon the results of Mathew’s work. He is doing this within the tremendous upheaval occurring around him. Jesus must clearly be viewed as one who is able to hold all things together. It is within this conundrum we view this incident where Jesus encounters the representatives of religion and the state. who had money, power, and an evil intent to destroy him.
A bit of the context of the original story may help us to better understand. Just a few years prior to Jesus' ministry, the image of Caesar nearly caused a “Jewish lives matter” revolt in Jerusalem when Pilate, in the cover of night, installed images of the emperor on the fortress, adjoining the Jewish Temple. Jewish law forbade both the creation of graven images and their introduction into holy city of Jerusalem. Pilate only averted a bloodbath by removing the images. Jerusalem had become a hot bed of political and religious upheaval; much like a modern-day Portland, Oregon. Today we are asked to explore this text similarly within the context of turmoil and social unrest occurring arounds us at this very moment.
How can we wrestle with this text while struggling with the twin evils of racial inequality and the COVID-19 pandemic which is ravishing our communities? How can we provide hope to our communities devastated by economic disparities as the pandemic has allowed an increase of the monetary value of billionaires while most of the population is just trying to eke out a living? How do we become good and effective stewards for our family, communities and for God when we are not on equal footing with those who have resources and many who seek to destroy us? How can we claim legitimacy when for many we much like Jesus: nothing but an inconvenience to be rid of?
It is against this background that the ‘Coin in the Temple’ incident occurred. It is also important to know that the denarius, the coin, was a representation of the emperor's power, wealth, and his supposed deity. So, when the Herodians and the Pharisaic disciples were quickly able to produce the coin Jesus requested, their ability to do so revealed a whole lot. These disciples of the Jewish traditions and of the emperor were willing to take advantage of the Roman financial wealth that came through the unfair taxation of the oppressed, whereas Jesus did not. Just imagine this meeting occurring in the Temple! By producing the coin, they revealed not just their religious hypocrisy by bringing a profane object, the coin of a pagan, into the sacred space of the Temple, they were practically removing God from his primary place and now sharing this space with Caesar. They were now willing to allow their fascination with money and power to dictate the depth of their loyalty to Jerusalem and their faith in God. It really sets a stage for a clash between power which comes through worldly wealth and the seeming powerlessness of a penniless Jesus? The economic disparity is clearly on display within the sanctity of the Temple.
Jesus is declaring and restoring God’s control over all things while dismissing human claims of ultimate power. Jesus takes a stand with the poor and oppressed. One wonders how this incident stands in relation to our nation’s legacy of slavery, Jim Crowism, and white privilege? On the United States dollar bills these words can be found, “In God we trust”. Which god when the Nation’s wealth was created on the backs of the African American? Is it the god of the Pharisees and Herodians whose wealth were gained through common oppression?
George Floyd died a penniless descendant of treachery and economic betrayal. His great grandfather, a freed slave who at one time owned nearly 500 acres of land in North Carolina, was rendered powerless when it became valuable real estate and the white planters stole it all. He became a sharecropper and was robbed of his wages many times. He constantly had to move from one planter to another only to be robbed again and again; all for others to gain “In God we trust”. That type of betrayal and thievery are what many of our white brothers and sister wish to deny as they enjoy the vestiges of white privilege.
The church built a large portion its wealth by participating and sanctioning these evils of slavery and segregation. To view this text as a simple introduction to stewardship glosses over the evil underbelly which Jesus encountered. Are we our brother’s keeper? Is our church working with God to be the keeper, the steward seeking to protect the black community from those who would continue to do us harm and allow our communities to languish and disappear? Is not our work and stewardship extended towards bringing healing and wholesomeness to the penniless and powerless?
For Jesus’ interrogators the money issues were a trap, but totally irrelevant to him. Money fueled power has no value in the New Kingdom in which God was central and the provider for all is the message of Jesus. “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” (Mathew 6:31) In this new Kingdom there will be enough for all for each would become his brother or sister’s keeper. When at dinner among friends and love ones, money is irrelevant. What matters most is the depth of love (and the quality of wine). Thus, wealthy men like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea became kingdom builders and dwellers as they understood the nature of the relationship between God and wealth. They used what they had to gain the kingdom of heaven. Jesus preaches a seismic shift in which power is no longer embedded with wealth. Wealth becomes a tool towards promoting the Kingdom of God. This, I believe at its very heart, this I believe is Christian stewardship. It is what God’s church must be about; it is what St. Elizabeth’s is about. When one understands “all good things around us are sent from heaven above”, then we subject it all to His honor and glory. The Kingdom is the goal wealth is a tool for the journey.
When we discover the love of God in Christ Jesus, then all things become subject to that love. All of life is viewed through the lens of God’s love. We then can become like Mathew to be engage in the intricacies of finding ways in which we can bring all of God’s people to His table. That is the work or stewardship which Jesus invites us to participate. Our ministry at St Elizabeth’s aims at bridging the gap between the powerful and the powerless. Then the oppressed and the oppressor will both sit at Jesus’ feet and lay down all their joys, pains, shame, and goods as acts of love and worship.
Render unto Caeser that which belongs to Caeser and give to God that which belongs to God.