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Since I was a kid, I’ve enjoyed collecting coins. From an early age, it was fascinating to me to see coins from days before I was born. And in some ways, holding an old coin was a way of touching history. I really still do feel that way, especially when I hold an ancient coin like a Roman denarius.
And as an adult, I began to collect coins from different countries I travelled to. It was a neat way to remember the trip, and also it’s a relatively cheap souvenir! And, with the excuse of using them in teaching and preaching, I’ve also expanded into a few ancient coins from the biblical era.
But as I’ve become older and learned more about some of these coins, I’ve realized that coins can actually tell you a lot. You can learn a lot about who people are, what their history is, and what they value, by what they put on their coins.
A modern example of this is the Euro coins. The Euro has been used by 19 EU countries since the year 2000, and all of the Euro coins are standard sizes and have the same image on the front. But each country gets to decide what images are going to be on the back of the coin. And those images may include people who were important historical figures in their country. They may include national symbols that represent their values. And they may include words and phrases that are mottos in their countries.
Images on coins have meaning, and Jesus seems to have been particularly aware of that when he asked to see the coin in today’s Gospel reading. In one sense, Jesus didn’t need to see the coin. It was probably the most common coin in circulation in the Roman Empire, and he and everyone else knew what it looked like.
But the coin had meaning to the Romans – and also to the subjugated peoples who were forced to use it. And that was the real issue.
Every time a Jewish person used a denarius, they saw:
- On the front, an image of the reigning Emperor who demanded not only obedience, but worship (all the Emperors considered themselves gods), and so for Jews this always involved handling a graven image (and did paying the taxes give assent to the Emperor’s egotistical claim to be a god…?)
- On the back, a symbol of Roman subjugation of other nations – and it was a reminder of their oppression …
- The words that glorified the Emperor as the master of all things …
The coin itself was a loaded symbol. It indicated who the Romans thought was important; it showed what the Romans valued; and the words proclaimed Roman propaganda.
And so Jesus asks for the coin – not to learn what the coin looks like, but to make a point. And the point is this: if the image on this little piece of silver can make such an impact, what impact can you – you who bear the image of God – have on the world around you?
Indeed, Jesus has to have in mind the notion that Genesis says that people have been created in the image of God. And therefore, like God’s coins in the world, we show others who God is and what God values by how we represent who’s important, what’s important and what words we use.
“Render to God the things that are God’s” is really another way of saying, “Be God’s coin in the world around you.” And just as the denarius circulated among people each and every day, we’re called to be God’s coin as we circulate in the life of others in our world.
And God makes an impact through us by the “image” we give of:
- Who is most important – is it God? Or is it really me? There are places in our world where people really are being persecuted for being Christians. I mean, it can get you killed! But I worry when Christians in America act like we’re being persecuted just because people are dissing us, or saying bad things about us. I mean, isn’t that what Jesus said was part of the program for being his followers? And when we show righteous indignation for ourselves, are we really lifting up Jesus as being the center, or are we just showing that we’re upset that we’re not the center anymore? Whose image are we showing the world around us?
- What we value – Are we conveying the values of Jesus? Is helping my neighbor what I value? Or am I more concerned with getting a tax break and looking good? Is including my neighbor what I value, or only being around people who think and act like me? Is caring about people who have a more difficult life than me worth my effort, or is it only worth the effort if it really doesn’t cost me anything? Are our values, and the way we live them, conveying the values of Jesus to the world around us?
- The words we use – many American coins have the words “liberty” or “in God we trust.” Sometimes we ask ourselves if we really mean those things, or if they’re just there to make us feel good. So what about the words we use about Jesus and for Jesus? Do we use those words to convey confidence or insecurity about our faith? Do our words about Jesus convey promise or judgement? Do our words about Jesus tell the world around us something they wouldn’t know about God if we weren’t there to say those words?
Each and every day, Jesus has called us to be God’s coin in the world. And so as you circulate around, be the God’s coin in the world. Be someone who shows image of God to the world by the way you live your life. Be someone who shows the image of God to the world by valuing what Jesus values. And be someone who shows the image of God to the world by using your words to convey words that the world lately doesn’t hear a lot of – words of hope and promise and confidence in God’s presence and love.