October 19, 2008 - Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
His hand was different from all the others through which I passed. As Herod’s lackey dropped me into the Teacher’s palm, it was more what I felt missing than anything else. The Man who held me and quietly inspected my engraving front and back had no desire for me. He held me loosely between thumb and forefinger. When He was done talking about me, He handed me back without a bit of hesitation.
Call me “Denarius,” because that’s what I am. I’m a little silver coin about the size of, but heavier than, one of your dimes. There’s a picture of the emperor on my front. An inscription says the image is the divine son of Augustus, in other words, the second Roman emperor Tiberius. I was probably the most common coin of the day, yet my value was much more than a dime. I was a typical day’s wages for a common man.
At the moment though, I was not in the company of common men. To that point I had been listening to the conversation from my place with several other denarii (that’s my plural, you know), in the Herodian’s purse. He was a members the Jewish party that supported the imperial appointment of Herod and his descendants as rulers of Palestine. Of all the Jews, the Herodians were the most friendly to Rome and its Caesars.
Right then, however, my Herodian owner was teamed in an unlikely partnership with other Jews who resented and chafed against Roman rule. The Pharisees were devoted worshippers of the Jewish God, whom they supposed was the only real deity. They regarded all our Roman gods as mere figments. They especially disliked our emperors’ pretensions to divinity, as in the words “Divine Augustus” written on me.
Normally I ignore what passes around me until the time comes when I get passed around, as wages, as the price of food or drink, as a bribe, or as payment on a debt. But nothing like that was happening. These Jews were always arguing miniscule matters of theology or obscure points of their own religious law. It seemed as if was of those times. The Pharisees and Herodians had gotten together to lay a verbal trap for a traveling teacher named Jesus, from Nazareth.
They started out by flattering Jesus, telling Him what integrity He had and how He always taught God’s way truthfully and how He wasn’t swayed by popular opinion. I was bored almost immediately and lay back in the leather pouch to doze off and wait for the shopping or something else that mattered to happen. But I perked up almost immediately when I heard the word “taxes” mentioned. That’s the other thing I’m good for. I am the coin of choice for paying the Roman “poll tax.”
In fact, I positively love tax time. It’s the very best time of the year. At no other season am I loved and cherished so dearly as when some poor soul must offer me involuntarily to a greedy tax collector. Oh how they cling to me. Oh how they weep at the thought of paying me out and getting nothing in return. Oh how they hold on until the last moment as though I was the dearest item on this earth. It makes me feel so good—or at least it used to.
The Pharisees were a real case at tax time. Of course they hated what I represent. That picture of Caesar claiming to be divine irritated them no end, but they didn’t care for my obverse either. There was an image of Tiberius’ mother, seated and posed as the great Roman deity Pax, “Peace,” with an olive branch and the divine rod symbolizing our empire’s legal authority. The words around her were another of Caesar’s titles, Pontif Maximus, “high priest” of the great Roman religion, the pantheon of gods. These Jewish fundamentalists, with their single God and their own high priests really hated that.
So they disliked me because of the emperor I represented, but even more they disliked giving me back to Tiberius. They despised sending their hard-earned wealth back to Rome where it did their poor, backward little province no good, and brought absolutely no honor to their precious God. I used to glory in their pious agony as they handed me over.
The Herodians pretended to be more blasé about the tax. Officially they supported Rome because Caesar had appointed their puny king and some of his progeny to rule this provincial backwater. But secretly they disliked the poll tax almost as much as the Pharisees. Roman citizens did not have to pay this tributum capitis, this tribute levied on the basis of a head count of all men. This was a tax on non-Romans, collected to pay the costs of Rome’s benevolent governance of these pitiful little regions of the empire. It used to be much more, but Tiberius’ foster-father Augustus had made it into a flat tax. One of me, one denarius for every non-Roman man in the province.
So even the Herodians gave me a little fun at tax time. On the outside they proudly dropped us, their tax coins, into the collector’s hand, yet inside they seethed with delightful indignation at being made to pay. I felt so loved at those moments.
Now, after they flattered Him, I heard them ask this scruffy wanderer Jesus from Galilee a dangerous question, “Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” Oh wow! I was wide awake now. This was dangerous ground. This was the seed of revolution. This was talk that carried war on the wind. Nothing would call down the military might and wrath of Rome faster than a nice little tax rebellion. All because of me, all because these men who claimed to love their God, to love their king, actually loved me. Even my metallic little self felt a warm glow at these thoughts.
Yet despite the daring, agitating question, Jesus’ voice was calm as He replied, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?” He knew full well that weren’t really contemplating rebellion against Rome. Is it right to pay the imperial tax? Who knows about “right,” but it was certainly the law, the law of Rome. None of these puny-hearted souls who talked about what was right but pinched my bottom as hard as any merchant would actually dare rebellion. And Jesus knew it. Then He asked for me.
I can’t really tell you quite how it felt to be asked for by this Man. Plenty of others have asked for me. I’ve seen grown men fall on their knees and shed tears begging for me or one of my brothers to be dropped into their hands. I’ve heard thieves ask for me with the swish of a knife and drunkards ask for me with slurred voices. I’ve heard mothers plead for me with cries of their hungry children. But I’ve never heard a voice with such authority, such kindness, such power, such gentleness ask for me. And He asked for me, as I’ve already said, without a hint of desire. He had need of me for a moment, but it was clear, He didn’t really want me. He would not keep me.
So I fell from the Herodian’s fingers into His, and everything changed. At first I was terribly frightened. What if there came to be more men like this One? What if there were a whole new race of human beings who cared for me as little as this Man Jesus did? Where would I be if the people who held me so tight suddenly had no wish for silver or even my golden elder brothers? What would happen to me, to my world, if money like I am no longer really mattered? I dropped into that Hand and felt like I had gone over a precipice.
Then the Voice spoke again, asking about me as He held me up. He asked seemingly silly questions, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” You’ve already heard. They knew. He knew. And He knew they knew. But He asked them anyway. Whose image? Whose inscription? Caesar’s, of course. Caesar minted money. He minted us in part for the express purpose that we might be paid back to him. He put his picture and his titles on me so that no could possibly forget who governed these territories. I bore Caesar’s image. I was his coin. And to my surprise, that’s exactly what Jesus said next.
“Give back to Caesar’s what is Caesar’s.” I sighed with relief but experienced a strange disappointment at the same time. Jesus had chickened out. My world was not ending. Men and women would still want me. They would still need me to pay taxes and buy food and hoard under their pillows. That was all good. There would be no tax rebellion, at least not yet, no invasion from Rome. For forty more years still, some of these poor fools would be clinging to me and fighting over me and needing me as much as ever. I was safe, but oddly, there in Jesus’ hand, I was also sad. Sad as if something great had passed me by.
Then Jesus said one more thing and my world really did change. The whole structure of my existence shifted around me and my life was transformed from that moment on. The teacher had said, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” Then He said the incredibly simple but incredibly transforming words, “and give to God what is God’s.”
What is God’s? What a question! I never really thought a god owned anything. Oh, sure, the Romans made offerings to their gods, sometimes even a coin like me. These Jews did the same. But no god ever held me before. It their priests and their prostitutes whose tangible fingers and purses I entered. I always assumed, like many educated Romans did, that the gods were pretty fictions, distractions to keep a bored populace amused and placated. I never really considered the possibility that a god might actually own anything.
Yet for some reason I immediately understood what Jesus had said. Perhaps it was those hours I sat in the Temple offering box listening while the Jewish priests and scribes read and debated their Scriptures, their holy Torah. I understood. Yes, I had the image of Caesar imprinted on me. But those Scriptures they read taught that there was an image imprinted on every human being. It was the image of God.
It must have been that Hand holding me which convinced me. Like I’ve tried to tell you, that Hand was different. It wasn’t just how it held me so loosely. I had the strange sensation that the same Hand held everything else very tightly, not in desire or greed, but in Love. In dizzy wonder the impression came over me that these rough fingers scarred by splinters and saw cuts held the stars in their grasp. These fingers that had obviously formed tables and chairs had also formed the ore from which I was mined. For the first time in my existence I was held in the Hand of a God. And He owned me, just as He owned the men to whom He was speaking. He owned us all and held us all, with love, in the palm of His hand.
“Give back to God what is God’s.” They got it. Sure they did. Their trap had failed. Jesus showed them their concern about taxes was trivial. Sure, Caesar ought to be paid his due. But there is One who is owed so much more, whose ownership is so profound, that governments and taxes and all the monetary exchanges which cause them such worry are pale and tiny in comparison. “Give to God what is God’s.” And what is God’s is their very selves. What is God’s is their whole lives, their whole world. What is God’s is everything.
At first that seemed the end of it. The Herodians and Pharisees were amazed at how Jesus escaped their trap. My owner took me back from that awesome Hand, I was thrust again into the leather folds of his wallet, and I thought it was over. But it was just the beginning.
I don’t have time to tell you much of how my course intersected the path of Jesus again. That’s just as well, because I am so ashamed of it. In the plotting of these men who hated Him, I passed from hand to hand until I joined twenty-nine of my brothers in a dark leather sack. And we thirty became His price, the price the Sanhedrin paid for His betrayal on a dark night later that week. The betrayer himself realized too late that it was a ridiculous price, that he had sold innocent blood for what amounted to nothing. Judas flung us all back into the temple, unwanted. Even the priests who condemned Jesus didn’t want me then. It was the worst moment of my existence. They picked us up as if we were unclean and used us to buy a field from a potter to be a cemetery for foreigners who died in poverty.
Yet my story and encounter with Jesus was not over yet. The potter who sold the field loved me as much as anyone, for awhile. Then one day a few weeks later he heard a commotion in the streets. He left his wheel and went out to hear what was going on. There were a dozen men there. A crowd told him they were disciples of Jesus, the same Jesus who had held me in His Hand. The same whose blood I had paid for. The very same. And His men were now saying that He was alive. And from everything I seen since, I believe it.
My potter believed it too. On the way back to his house, having heard what people began to call the “Good News” about Jesus, the potmaker encountered a beggar, a man missing a leg. My current owner had passed the same man a dozen times and never given him a second glance. But now he stopped. He looked at the man and seemed to be thinking. Then he fumbled in his purse and closed his hand around me. I was all that was left. The other twenty-nine had paid his debts and bought some good wine. But now, instead of saving me for that night’s wine, he took me in trembling fingers and gave his last coin to the lame man and said words I’ve heard often since, “Jesus loves you.”
That was when I knew everything really had changed that day I rested on the Teacher’s palm. He had been so right. “Give to God what is God’s.” Because His resurrection from the dead proved He is God, it was all being given to Him. I passed from hand to hand now in incredible ways. Men and women began to hold me like He held me, loosely, ready to give me up in a moment if the Spirit of God suggested it. They even sold homes and property and took the money, took us, to be used to buy food for those who were poor and to pay a living for the Teacher’s disciples.
At first it was weird, frightening. As by the Hand of Jesus, I was bewildered by all these hands which didn’t need or desire me nearly so much as I was used to. But it felt good to drop from the potter’s hand into the hand of that beggar. It felt good to be the price of bread and milk for a widow’s children. It felt good to be cherished for what I could do for others rather than desired for my own sake. In short, it felt good to discover my real Owner.
Now instead of enjoying the sensations of avarice and greed that used to make me feel loved by all people, I prefer the warmer, more gentle feelings of kindness and love when I am given away or used for some good purpose. Now I much prefer to be passed around in those loving ways than to be hoarded in a lock box or a bank. Somehow I hope that even a humble piece of silver like I can serve that great Hand that made me along with everything else in this big world.
This world is better when people like you remember what I learned that day in His Hand. When you remember how God owns you, how He both made you and then bought you again with the blood of His own Son, you will care much less about owning me. You will simply delight, like I did, to be used for His purpose, to answer His call and His desire.
So if, by His good purpose, I should come into your possession, do me a favor. Please don’t hold me tightly. That’s not His way. That’s not what I am for any longer. I don’t really belong to you. Nor do you yourself even truly belong to you. We are not our own. We are His. So do me a favor. Give me up. Give me away. Give me away for Jesus. And then we both will have known the joy of resting in His Hand for awhile. May that gracious Hand bless you.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj