Money becomes sacramental when it’s used to heal

Published 8:56 am Friday, October 17, 2008

Jesus knew they were up to no good. He said, “Why are you playing these games with me? Why are you trying to trap me? Do you have a coin? Let me see it.” They handed him a silver piece. “This engraving — who does it look like? And whose name is on it?” They said, “Caesar.”

“Then give Caesar what is his, and give God what is his.” The Pharisees were speechless. They went off shaking their heads. Matthew 22:18-22

This is a slightly different translation (The Message, Eugene Peterson) of the familiar story that has the Pharisees trying to trap Jesus by asking whether it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor. Jesus then asks to see the coin — which the Pharisees should not have been able to produce so readily because Mosiac Law forbids any graven images. But it is Jesus’ answer after examining the coin that I find so striking in this version. “Then give Caesar what is his, and give God what is his.”

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Folks in congregations may grumble about a visit from the bishop. The feelings of entitlement are clear when they complain that he or she only shows up every three years and then only wants to talk about money. Then comes the clincher, “Where does he get off coming to our church and wanting our money?” This is, of course, the season when churches also are starting their stewardship campaigns and you may be thinking to yourselves, “Oh great. Now he’s going to start preaching at me about tithing!”

It is so very easy to fall into the attitude of “my church” and “my money.” The reality is that not just 10 percent of it is God’s — 100 percent of it is God’s. It’s God’s church and it’s God’s money.

We are merely stewards of resources that have been entrusted to us by God. The Episcopal theologian William Stringfellow says that idolatry of money keeps us from seeing what truly belongs to God. He describes it as the attitude that one’s moral worth is directly related to how much money one possesses or controls. It is that idolatry of money in a society that makes being poor a sin. It is that idolatry that kept the rich young man from giving it all away and following Jesus. It is that idolatry that kept the Pharisees from seeing how little was owed Caesar and how much truly belongs to God.

Stringfellow goes on to say, “Freedom from idolatry of money, for a Christian, means that money becomes useful only as a sacrament — as a sign of the restoration of life wrought in this world by Christ.”

(“Money” in Simpler Living, Compassionate Life, Michael Schut, ed.) The use of money becomes sacramental when it is put to work in healing humankind and all of God’s creation from the hurts they absorb — visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, providing shelter for those without, healing and protecting the environment. The sacramental use of money frees us from the worship of it.

When we see money in this light, the ways in which we worry about it, raise it and spend it might just be changed along the way. The true joy in having money may lie in finding more ways to give it away. “Then give Caesar what is his, and give God what is his.” The Pharisees were speechless. They went off shaking their heads.

The Rev. James Young is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Albert Lea.