This past Sunday, listening to the Gospel reading in which Jesus speaks of the lawfulness of paying taxes, I had one of those quick and fleeting drive-by thoughts. It hit me in the head and was gone before I could get a good look at it, but it lingered.
Whose head is on the coin? And whose inscription? Whose graven image?
Now I’ve always been fairly cynical about money. I often refer to Capitalism as our national religion. And on the whole I look at economics the same way many atheists regard religion: it’s really just a commonly held delusion which those in power use to keep their power while the rest of us find some vague but ultimately futile comfort and hope in it.
Really money has no intrinsic value. Its only value is what we decide to give it — and/or what we let our High Priests of Finance dictate to us. And yet this invented system somehow comes to dictate the worth of everything around us. Even our own sense of self-worth, all too often, is dependent upon how much of this imaginary value we can lay claim to.
No one can serve two masters, Jesus tells us. You can’t serve both God and Mammon. And if our God is a jealous God, Mammon is a manipulative one. It encourages us to trust in it and to distrust anyone else. It devalues our passions — “Time is money,” it tells us, and it will insist that time not spent in its service is time wasted. It promises the world (if we but prostrate ourselves in homage to it) and never delivers more than just enough to keep stringing us along.
Saint Francis of Assisi (never one to do things half-way) used to instruct his followers, if they should find a coin on the ground they should treat it as if it were dung. Not as a useless trinket, or as a bauble with delusions of grandeur. Treat it as something repulsive, filthy, unclean, as if its corrupting influence might worm its way into the soul. As with Tolkien’s Great Ring of Power, this wisest and most powerful would most emphatically refuse it. ” Its strength,” says Elrond, “is too great for anyone to wield at will, save only those who have already a great power of their own. But for them it holds an even deadlier peril. The very desire of it corrupts the heart.”
But I wonder if that too is a form of idolatry — to ascribe to money a malevolent will ultimately stronger than our own? It is a tool — a means to an end — and only has whatever power over us we choose to give it. To return a moment (because I can’t help myself) to my Tolkien metaphor: Bilbo Baggins used the Ring often in his adventure and for years afterward, with only very minimal and temporary corrupting effect — because to him it was never more than a useful trinket.
And maybe that’s all Jesus is saying. Money isn’t important. Use it as you have to, but don’t worry about it. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Give to God what is God’s. Just make sure you don’t confuse the two.