October 14, 2008

No Small Change

by Debra Dean Murphy
I Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22 (23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time)

One of the grim realities of the financial markets meltdown is the loss in trillions of dollars in retirement accounts like 401(k)s. It's no small matter that many people close to retirement may be in quite a fix. And it seems reasonable to ask, if such a vast sum is indeed lost, can't someone figure out how and where we might find it? Where the heck did all that money go?

But of course it wasn't real money that went missing—it was an abstract numerical projection derived from estimates of potential future returns on investments (or some such econ-speak gobbledygook). It was imaginary money—not play money, exactly, but not paper and coin currency, not the stuff you can jingle around in your pocket or slip the bellhop at the airport.

Which makes the overly-familiar, often badly-interpreted text about "rendering unto Caesar" seem almost quaint. Here Jesus talks about real money—money in the hand, money with a politician’s face on it.

We're used to reading this text as justification for dividing reality neatly in two: God's sphere (which we usually take to be "private") and the public sphere (which we assume is, well, public). The private sphere is where we live out our “spiritual life”—personal devotion to God, believing the right things, trying to live by “religious values.” The public sphere is the realm of politics and economics, of schools and taxes and elections—no room for religion there. (Even those who believe that Christianity should muscle its way into the public sphere—prayer in schools, say, or posting the Ten Commandments in courtrooms—still operate on the assumption that there are two divinely-ordained spheres).

But when Jesus says “give to God the things that are God’s,” we know that he can’t possibly be endorsing such a distinction—for everything is God’s! The whole conversation with the Pharisees is another one of Jesus’ dead-serious jokes. We have to see the subversive smile on his face, hear the irony (and impatience) in his voice. Jesus is talking about coins and taxes but he’s really talking about power and ultimate loyalty, about pledging allegiance not to Caesar’s economy but to God’s alone. He’s offering a tutorial on the economics of the Kingdom.

The coin might have the emperor’s image on it, but God’s people bear the imago dei. And like an invisible tattoo, we wear the mark of baptism that identifies us as Christ’s own, as citizens of the Kingdom of God. All we have is God’s. All we are is God’s. Where Caesar and Wall Street would have us lament the loss of an imaginary abundance, God’s economy is premised on a plenty that can never be diminished, if only we would have the courage and imagination to live fully into its promised gifts.

One of the reasons that Christians, generally, have responded to the current financial crisis with as much panic and gloom as everyone else is that we are afraid to need one another. We’re embarrassed by our lack, so we suffer in silence, certain that to need money is a sign of moral weakness. Where the Thessalonian Christians had learned “to turn to God from idols” (1:9), we more readily turn from God to the idol of financial security and name its pursuit a virtue, extolling the quest as an act of prudence and foresight. Better to have a fat portfolio than to depend on our sisters and brothers in Christ. How unfair and irresponsible that would be.

The Thessalonian Christians were “an example to all the believers in Macedonia,” and in every place their faith in God was made known (1:8). The Church in recent days has offered no unified witness because it has assumed the sheer givenness of Caesar’s economy—it is deep into it and can’t see its way out of it.

At the end of the Thessalonians reading, Paul encourages the people to wait for Jesus, “who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.” We usually assume that Paul means God’s wrath, and maybe he does. But maybe Paul is referring to the kind of violence—economic, military, political—that exists in Caesar’s sphere, that sustains Caesar’s power. Jesus rescues us from this, says Paul, for the cross is the undoing of all violence and wrath. The challenge for the Thessalonians and for us is to stop assuming the inevitability of Empire.

This is no small change. This is an overhaul of our collective imagination. The Pharisees seemed to get this for we’re told in the text that “they were amazed; and they left him and went away” (Mt. 22:22).

Oh that we might be so amazed.

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