The penny is less than worthless, costing 2 cents each to create. In fact, in 2022, the US Mint will cease producing pennies, though they will remain in circulation for some time after that. How did we get to this place—spending two times the worth of a coin that no one even uses? There are many reasons, but one of them has to do with the face on the coin. And the state that claims that famous face. Many attempts have been made to eliminate the penny, but the state of Illinois is among those who have lobbied for its survival. After all, the penny bears the face of Illinois’ favorite son—Abraham Lincoln. How could we do that to dear old Abe?
By now, that $20 bill in your pocket should bear the face of Harriet Tubman, a former slave who freed other slaves from bondage. She would have been the first woman and first person of color to grace a piece of US currency. Though the design process was already underway, it was stopped abruptly for reasons that are not clear. Some say it is because the steps necessary to make the $20 bill impossible to counterfeit were not in place. Some say it is just taking longer to produce the quantity of bills necessary to be in meaningful circulation. And others say it is because Ms. Tubman was a black woman, whose face would replace that of former President Andrew Jackson, a slaveholder and architect of the Trail of Tears. A freer of slaves or an owner of them. Which bill would you rather spend?
What’s in your wallet? Though we attribute that question to Samuel L. Jackson and CapitalOne, it was first coined by Jesus in Sunday’s gospel. (Matthew 22.15-22) Surrounded by leaders from both the religious and political systems in Jerusalem, his interrogators were laying a trap for Jesus: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
There was no way Jesus was going to answer to everyone’s satisfaction. If he said, “No, we ought not pay taxes,” the political leaders (Herodians) would have pitched a fit over his lack of patriotism and civic engagement. Had he said, “Yes, we ought to pay taxes,” the religious leaders (Pharisees) would have come undone—observant Jews were to have no financial dealings with Rome, not even carrying its currency. You see, the coin in question bore the image of Emperor Augustus, who believed himself to be a god. That image violated the First Commandment: “you shall have no other gods.”
Instead of giving both opponents reason to accuse, Jesus sidestepped the issue. “What’s in your wallet? Show me the coin. Whose image does it bear?” The answer was simple, “The Emperor’s.”
“Well,” Jesus said, “things that have the image of the emperor on them, belong to the emperor. But things that bear the image of God . . .” You can see where he was going.
As we prepare for elections at every level of government, and as we tear each other to shreds over the proposed tax amendment to our state constitution, it would be tempting to turn Jesus’ word into a political endorsement. (Like the Pharisees and Herodians, we love to use Jesus for our own political purposes.)
But Jesus is not weighing in on tax policy, or advising the US Mint. Jesus is reminding us that we belong to the one whose image we bear; we belong to God. Easy to say, but would anyone suspect—by the way you spend your time, your money, your words, your affections—that you belong to God?
In fact, Sunday’s question is not “What’s in your wallet?” Sunday’s question is “Whose face is on your face?” Abraham Lincoln? Harriet Tubman? Andrew Jackson? Emperor Augustus? Jesus Christ?
Funny that during the pandemic, we are advised to use no paper currency or coins at all, since are in short supply and are potential virus carriers. Instead, we present our plastic debit and credit cards for purchases large and small. Whose face is on that worthless piece of plastic? And does the way we use it say something about whose we are and what we believe?
Please join us for worship Sunday (remotely) as we seek to see the face of God in one another.
Pastor JoAnn Post
On Sunday morning at 10 a.m., we host live Zoom Worship. You may join us using this information: Meeting ID: 899 7267 2648, Passcode: 195368) and wait for the host to give you access. Worship will be recorded and posted later on Sunday, for those who are unable to join us live.