My wife and I had the pleasure of going out of town for a weekend a few weeks ago – a rare event in the busyness of our lives as of late. We took an evening flight to New Orleans, which, as we are amateur foodies, is really just an excuse to indulge in as many char-grilled oysters and beignets as one can stomach. On one particular evening we found ourselves perusing the glass cabinets in an antique shop on the corner of St. Louis and Royal. Hanging on the walls were old muskets and sabers and the shelves were littered with ancient coins found in ruined chests and shipwrecks off the coast.
One coin specifically caught my eye. It was a small silver coin, a denarius, with a depiction of Tiberius, the Emperor of Rome during the time of Jesus. This coin was surrounded by other coins in use in the Roman Empire, all imprinted with stoic depictions of the rulers of Rome. This denarius was very similar to the type of coin Jesus amazed the Pharisees with when they tried to catch him in a theological trap: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s,” he declared.
As I stood in that shop peering into the glass case, I wondered if it was this same inscription that Jesus had in mind when he said, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
We’ve all read those uncomfortable verses about selling all of our possessions, giving all of our money to the poor…the whole “eye of the needle” thing. Jesus seemed to be fairly harsh with those that held on to too many of these little silver coins, even flippant at times.
In light of Jesus’ attitude toward money, we as Christians are forced to confront the question: “What role does money play in our lives?”
I think if we were really honest with ourselves, we may find that we often brush off these statements Jesus makes concerning how we deal with money. Maybe He didn’t really mean what He said?
If we dig a little deeper, Jesus is actually making very pointed statements about much more than money. You see, much like today, Jesus was quite aware of the hold money had on both an institutional and personal level. Institutional in the sense that money was used as both a reminder of oppressive imperial rule and a toll for entrance into the religious community. Imagine our five dollar bills with “High Priest” and “Son of God” printed around the portrait of President Abraham Lincoln! Yet, this is what those under Roman rule saw every time they visited the market.
On a personal level, He had famous encounters with those whose lives revolved around money. The rich young ruler was sent away, frustrated with the commandment to give all of his money away after selling his possessions. Zacchaeus, the crooked and wealthy tax collector, was radically transformed after encountering Jesus, promising to pay back those he cheated and to give half of his wealth to the poor.
Jesus, after witnessing the infectious control that money can have, provides an alternative role for money in the life of His followers.
The call to pick which master to serve, God or money, is surrounded by exhortations towards generosity and freedom from the anxiety of want. This idea of generosity and contentment is, in a way, an innovative protest He calls us to join in against the oppressive structures we encounter everyday.
This mission of generosity and contentment is the role that money plays in the lives of those who follow Jesus. He doesn’t deny the practical use of money, but rather implores us towards a deeper investment with our wealth. In so doing, we are addressing a much more structural issue – we are rejecting the world’s oppressive systems and divisive values and instead acknowledging God’s sovereignty over a world obsessed with money. Those stoic depictions of ruthless rulers on coins are continuously replaced by a just God who values the poor and is impressed by generosity.