Sometimes preachers make a point about today’s Gospel (the question to Jesus about “paying tribute to Caesar”) by noting that, when Jesus asked that the Roman coin be shown to him, his adversaries seem to have had at least one in their pocket. I guess such preachers mean to show that his enemies were compromised themselves, but that’s silly. Having the coin wasn’t an admission of moral failure; it was a simple necessity to live at that time and place. (There were special, Jewish coins for offerings at the temple – hence the “money changers” whose tables Jesus overturned; but those coins weren’t used in ordinary commerce.) How do such preachers think the Pharisees paid for their groceries?
And how do such preachers keep the lights on? I’m sure they use U.S. currency to pay the electric bill and to put food on their own tables. Preaching that accuses the Pharisees of hypocrisy for using money shows something that’s widespread, and not just in churches: it shows that many people, including church people, are weird about money. They put it into a special mental box, disconnected from the rest of life.
Last month the NY Times ran a story called, “What the Rich Won’t Tell You.” It included tales of people who take the price-tags off expensive household items before letting their domestic help see them. I don’t know whether that’s embarrassment or guilt, or both – about what they spend on a lamp or a loaf of bread, or what they don’t spend on giving their help fair wages. Maybe it’s a mix of all of that. People who were interviewed also told the writer how shocking it was to be asked how much they earned, and how concerned they were that the writer would keep their identities secret. Again, the special box.
We shouldn’t be surprised that there’s lots of emotion around money, no matter how much or how little we have. In doing some research a few years ago I learned that money has always been considered in some way “magic.” The first mints were in temples, run by the pagan priests; coins are circular to represent the sun (when gold), and the moon (when silver). People have always been aware that money is wrapped up in power over life and death (especially when one doesn’t have enough for food and shelter). So it’s tough to deal with money in a mature and Christian way.
We need to get our heads on straight about money so we don’t end up like the preachers I mentioned above, saying things that are just silly or misguided. For disciples of Christ, money isn’t “sacred”: but it is small-s “sacramental”: it reveals us to ourselves, and it reveals our relationship to God to us.
As the “parable of the talents” that we’ll hear at Mass in a few weeks makes clear, God expects us to use what He’s loaned to us wisely – and He will expect an accounting. As pastor here, I have responsibility to see that your contributions are used prudently. I will have to give an accounting – to the diocese (as we do every year), to you (the parish balance sheet and P&L will be on the website in a few weeks, and summary financial reports going back to 1997 are there as well), and ultimately to God. As an adult Catholic, I have a similar responsibility to use my personal money well, and to expect that I will be held accountable, by God if by no one else. And that means paying attention to the “sacramental,” and avoiding the “magic.” I do this using three tools: a personal budget; a commitment to giving a certain percentage to charity each year; and (more widely) by trying to become holy in all the areas of my life. The preachers I mentioned at the start can’t be thinking clearly, or they’d see that their words about the Gospel don’t match their everyday actions in running a church or a household. Holiness means integration – we can’t put some aspect of our lives into a special box. (Dag Hammarskjöld, a former Secretary-General of the United Nations, put it well: “He who wants to keep his garden tidy does not reserve a plot for weeds.”)
Thinking clearly about money isn’t easy. Adult discipleship requires it. Budget. Planned giving. Striving for holiness. These are the irreplaceable pieces. Until next week, peace.