There is a delightful story in the gospels about the Pharisees trying to trap Jesus with a question about taxes. (See Matth. 22:15-22) The question sounds deceptively simple, “Should we pay taxes?” but underlying it is a layers of historical and emotional nuance.
Still, Jesus simply tosses them a coin and says, “Whose image is on the coin?” They say, “Caesar” and Jesus replies, “Then give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar and then give to God that which belongs to God.”
Jesus’ answer is much more meaningful than a first glance might tell. After all Caesar’s image was on all the money, not just the taxes and God’s image is written on all our bodies. By referring to the imago Caesar, Jesus was also referring to the Imago Dei (image of God). He was making a statement that metal coins (or even paper money) are the currency of the worldly kingdoms and should just be thrown back to the world. In turn, our bodies are the currency of God’s kingdom.
Caesar’s image isn’t on our money today. We have our great Presidents for that. And in fact our money even gives a nice little shout out to God in the phrase, “In God We Trust.” But I still wonder if money is one of those things the kingdoms of this world use to capture and enslave us to sin. For this reason I am always incredibly inspired by Christians who truly have sold all they have and given it to the poor and chosen to live a very modest, almost beggar’s life. I have met a few and I envy them most days.
Now I live in a suburb of a major metropolitan area. Our suburb is know for having the nicest indoor mall around and I have it on good authority that 1.3 billion dollars in retail sales happen every year here. Some weeks I think that my family supports at least half that amount!
A year ago I lived in a small rural town with almost no economy and still some temptation to spend money foolishly. Since moving here that temptation has quadrupled! A year ago the best grocery store was 20 miles away and grocery shopping could be a 2 hour event. Now we have one just down the street and it is even home to a Starbucks! If we forget to thaw some meat for dinner, we can now just order a pizza. The mall has free indoor playgrounds and toys for my kids so I find myself going in there and window shopping once a week. There is the Home Depot and Lowe’s which sell the coolest gadgets for home improvement. We have fancier upscale restaurants as well as fast food. And the Wal-Marts and Targets sell anything else we might need. But if I am still too lazy to leave my house, I can always open the Google Play app and buy some movies, TV shows or music. And all it takes is a couple of clicks.
For this reason I gave up spending money for Lent this year. The stated goal was to, “Not spend money on myself by myself.” I hesitated to do it, not for any spiritual reason, but because the words, “on myself, by myself” were incredibly vague and I don’t think vague goals succeed. However, this fast has actually proven the most enlightening.
The fast means I have to stop and think before every purchase I make. I ask myself the question, “Why am I really spending this money and who am I spending it on?” A few times this Lent I have opened up the Google Play store, only to realize, “there is nothing here I can purchase or even need to purchase right now.” At the beginning of Lent, I went to buy a shirt at Costco only to realize that is definitely spending money on myself. I have walked into certain stores, only to realize there was no reason for me to be there. I have driven past many a Starbucks and thought, “I have a moment to buy a Latte” and then realized, “Nuts! That violates both the coffee fast and the spending money fast.”
I wouldn’t say I long or even desire to spend money. I do not have a hoarder problem, I don’t think. But I do desire some of the things of this world that only money can buy. I desire the convenience of fast food, the enjoyment of movies, and the freedom that comes when you realize, “I totally have the money to pay for this!” Sometimes I just enjoy the freedom of walking into a hardware or electronics store and looking around feeling like I belong there and that these products on the wall are the true life givers.
Of course they are not. And of course after a month of not spending money during Lent, I realize that there is very little I even need to be spending money on, at least for myself. I have done just fine without the shirt, the movie, the game, the convenient fast food and the latte. No, I take that back. I miss the Lattes!
But the most profound thing that happened this Lent was at a conference a couple weeks ago. During the dinner break, I watched my friends and colleagues pair off and leave, only to realize that by the terms of my fast, someone had to invite me out to eat or else I would have to go hungry. I spent the last half hour of the session praying I would be able to find a dinner partner and coming to grips with the reality that my fast meant I would have to starve. There was a certain painful loneliness to that but in the end I grew desperate enough to accept the invitation to dinner from someone I would never have otherwise joined. Wee had a wonderful and delightful conversation over pitas. It was an inspiring conversation I would have missed if I had just gone out to eat by myself. And in the end he even paid for the meal!
I would like to think that conversation with an unknown ally and friend was the true currency of God’s kingdom.
Come oh Easter!