What's in your wallet?

Imagine, just for a moment, that you’re a Pharisee. You probably don’t want to imagine that you’re a Pharisee; you’d probably rather imagine that you’re St. Peter or the Centurion or Spartacus – but humor me for a moment.  You’re a Pharisee.  You are a lay leader in your religious community. You love the Torah and the beautiful logic of the law that it lays down for you.  You live a simple life; you tithe, faithfully observe the Sabbath, try to keep your body and soul pure and holy.  You hold yourself apart from the temple priests and the Sadducees, partially because you disagree with them on practices and doctrine, but mostly because you like to hold yourself apart.  You see it as your task, your calling, to lead your community into a new understanding of themselves as faithful, practicing, holy Jews. You teach and preach and live a life of righteousness under the law.

Into your life comes a man named Jesus. You first heard about him from John the Baptist, that desert zealot who kept calling you and your friends a brood of vipers. At first, you liked Jesus a lot – certainly more than his hairy, locust-eating cousin. Jesus said some good things, and he at least he wasn’t calling you names. He spoke about fulfilling the law, about ushering in the kingdom of God; he taught and healed and preached just like you wanted to. But then you began to notice that he didn’t always act just like you wanted to. He and his disciples didn’t follow every single letter of the law, especially about Sabbath practices. He liked to hang out with a rather unseemly crowd and let scandalous women weep all over his feet. You yourself asked Jesus for a sign, and he refused you.  And just this past week, after he rode into Jerusalem with fanatics screaming Hosanna and strewing palm fronds at his feet, he stormed into the temple and made a royal mess of the money changing tables and told parable after parable about how you and your Pharisee friends – fellow reformers, mind you – are about to have the kingdom taken away from you because he thinks you wear the false masks of hypocrites. He’s even started calling you – guess what? – a brood of vipers.

And so one day you look at your own reflection in the waters of the mikvah and you say enough is enough; no more following him around asking stupid questions and hoping that he’ll say what you want him to. It’s time to take action, time to out this Jesus as the heretic he is, to show the people that he is not their Messiah. It’s time to get him in some serious trouble. But you can’t really do this on your own. After all, you’ve a righteous, law-abiding guy; you need help from some tougher players. So you look over your shoulder, cross the tracks, and knock on the door of the local Herodian gang. Now the Herodians are not fans of yours – they’re establishment guys, fans of Rome, power players in the political scene. They may not particularly like you, but they really don’t like Jesus, and they’re happy to help you set him up.

And so you all put your heads together and whip up the perfect impossible situation. You’re going to ask Jesus whether or not you should pay the census tax, a tax mercilessly imposed by Rome, a tax that the Israelites absolutely hate. If he says yes, the Israelites will hate him too; if he says no, he sets himself up directly as a dangerous enemy of the Roman state. Either way, you win. And just to add to the pressure, you’re going to ask him this question together – you, the Pharisee, who despises the census tax, and your new allies, the Herodians, who want nothing more than to continue to placate the Roman authorities who are the primary source of their power. And you’re going to pose this question right in the temple, right in front of God and everybody. Your plan is to flatter him a bit, soften him up, and then spring the trap and watch him squirm.

And so imagine that you, the Pharisee, meet up with Jesus on the temple mount. “O great and powerful Rabbi, answer a simple question for us – do you think we should pay this tax to Caesar, or not?” And you sit back and wait for the squirming to begin. You wait for Jesus to start shuffling his feet and writing in the dirt and avoiding your eye like a bad student who didn’t memorize his Torah portion for the day. You begin to imagine his disgrace, his downfall, you can almost see his disciples turning and walking away, his followers turning to you, giving themselves over to following the law as you see it, worshipping God as you think they should, listening to you.

But here’s the thing: Jesus doesn’t squirm at all. He looks you right in the eye and calls you out. “Why are you trying to set me up? I see that mask you have on, you know. Show me the coin, and I’ll tell you what to do with it.” And without thinking you reach deep into your pocket, and pull out a small silver denarius – and you look at this coin, with its image of Caesar’s arrogant, self-righteous head, with its inscription that celebrates his power and even his divinity – and you suddenly realize where you are. You’re standing on the temple mount, holding an idolatrous, sacrilegious piece of mammon in your sweaty hands. You hear Jesus’ voice like it’s coming from very far away, “Let Caesar have his own stupid coin; but give God, whose most holy place you are standing in right now, all of the things that are His.” And you, the righteous Pharisee, can’t quite believe what it is that you’re doing. You’re standing there aligned with people you don’t like, hearing words that you already know are true, words that you should be telling the people yourself. And you’re stuck holding this stupid coin, trapped and squirming.

And the moral of the story is…? It could be: don’t try to set up Jesus. This is never a particularly good idea. But it could also be this: you can tell a lot about a person by what she carries around in her pockets. These Pharisees had gotten themselves so tied up in knots by their own fear and condemnation, so disconnected from the holiness of their calling, that they were walking around with the desolating sacrilege in their pockets without even realizing it. They were carrying around an image of worldly concerns, of mortal power, the very power that they were seeking for themselves even as they condemned it with their words and overly-scrupulous actions. They had somehow bought Rome’s argument – that you needed this coin to be safe and successful in the world – and so they had actually answered their own question. Should we pay taxes to Rome? I guess so, if you can’t even leave the house without Rome right there in your pocket.

A wise man once said that you can tell what kind of discipleship a person is living by looking at his checkbook. But since no one uses checks anymore, I think we could update that saying to this: you can tell a lot about a person by what he carries around in his wallet.  And yes, I do mean literally. What you have in your pocket right now says something about you. Your keys – how many, and to what? Your smartphone, your wallet, with how many credit cards? Membership cards, pictures of your family. Cash. Bus tokens. A clip of your beloved’s hair. A hand-written prayer. A cross. An icon. A pledge card. A mint. Some of the stuff in our pockets might be just fine – good and meet and right so to have. But some of it might be like that damning denarius. Some of the things that we carry around with us in our pockets – literal or metaphorical – might just cause us to shuffle around a bit if we had to pull them out here in this holiest of houses, in front of God and everybody.

Now as squirmy as all of this might make us, there is some good news here.  We aren’t alone in all of this. It seems to be a part of the human condition to collect junk in our pockets like so many bad apps on our iPhones. And Jesus doesn’t condemn us for it – he didn’t condemn the Pharisee for it, and he doesn’t condemn us. He just asks us to figure out what to do with all of it. He asks us to take it out, look at it, evaluate it, and decide if it’s something that belongs to the world or something that belongs to God.  Is it something we offer as a grateful gift to God, or is it something that we just need to get out of our pockets because it probably isn’t very good for us anyway? The trouble is that Jesus didn’t really say how to do that, how to categorize these things, our stuff. And whether you are a part of the richest of the rich 1% or the rest of us 99%, figuring this out is a real challenge. Which things are Caesar’s? Which things are God’s? The truth is that Jesus isn’t willing to give us a hard and fast rule about how we decide which is which. He is, after all, not a Pharisee. He is Jesus, the Christ, the fulfillment of the living law, and he is not willing to be trapped by our own anxieties and insecurities. But he is willing to stand with us, to look at each and every thing that we pull out of our pocket, to help us decide where it belongs – what we are to do with it, how it fits into our lives as disciples. So go ahead, take a look. What’s in your wallet? And what does that say about you? And, more importantly, what are you going to say about it?

Preached by Mtr. Erika Takacs

16 October 2011

St. Mark's, Philadelphia

Posted on October 16, 2011 .