When I got home from the airport Thursday evening, waiting for me in the pile of mail, mostly flyers, that had accumulated while I was gone was a small parcel. The parcel was from Virginia. When I picked it up and turned it over, I saw the return address of my friend and fellow Lutheran pastor, Lyndon Sayers. The parcel had a little customs stamp on it saying what was inside. But I didn’t look at that. Instead, I did what any kid with a present would do! I ripped open the envelope and reached inside. And what I pulled out was this:
Now. There are lots of things I can imagine getting from Lyndon and his family. But not that.
Why would Lyndon send me a wallet, I wondered? It was red leather, one of those kinds of wallets I remember from growing up out west. A cowboy-wallet, with stiff, thick leather outers, an soft brown inner liner that smelled of fresh cowhide, and plastic threading winding around the outside. A BIG wallet. The kind you can imagine going with a cowboy hat and 100 dollar US bills. Nice, but not exactly my style.
I turned the wallet around so I could really see it, and that’s when I got the second surprise of the day.
There was the face of Jesus, carved into the leather by one of those leather-working tools and signed “Gene”. On the other side were some intricate flower patterns, and in the middle of them these words, taken from Isaiah 53: “For he was acquainted with grief”.
A Jesus wallet. A real Jesus wallet! Just for me.
When the religious leaders at the Temple in Jerusalem tried to trap Jesus, they did it by asking if it was right to pay taxes to Caesar. They thought they had him with that, since whatever Jesus said, he would have been either against the Emperor or against his own faith. But he answered like this: Why are you putting me to the test? Show me the coin used for the tax. And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them: Whose head is this, and whose title? And they answered: the emperor’s.
I LOVE my new wallet. Lyndon knows I’m from the west, since he grew up in exactly the same small prairie town I did. And he knows I like kitsch. But as soon as you put Jesus’ face on a wallet, it seems to me that you’re entering some unusual – and potentially challenging -territory.
Imagine pulling that wallet out at the bar when you’re buying a beer. And there’s the face of Jesus, right there, looking you in the eyes. Now in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that one of the things people criticise him for is being a “wine drinker and a glutton”. So maybe a beer wouldn’t be so bad. But imagine pulling out the wallet when it comes time to buy that fancy new cell phone that I KNOW I don’t really need. Or a meal downtown when I could have made a lunch. Or a four-dollar tea at Starbucks when I have a teapot in my office and Canadian Lutheran World Relief is asking for donations to help the refugees in Syria. I wonder if the Jesus wallet might just make me think twice then.
Jesus slid right out of the trap that the religious leaders were setting for him. He did it by saying that whoever’s face is on the coin is who that coin belongs to. Period. Give therefore to the Emperor those things that are the Emperor’s and to God those things that are God’s. In the ancient world, just as in ours, coins are – technically, at least – owned by the state. We just borrow what is known as legal tender.
But then what did Jesus actually mean about giving to God the things that are God’s? He could have been talking about what is holy enough for the Temple offering. Coins with a human image were considered idolatrous by the ancient Jews, who had to change them for special Temple coins that had no such image. But I think there’s a deeper meaning.
Jesus and his interrogators might have been opponents of each other, but as Jews they all believed one thing: when Israel’s God made human beings, it was in the divine image. Every human being bears the stamp of the Creator. As sure as any coin. Two thousand years later we who are Christians have inherited that belief from the Jews. We still say, at least, that we are made in God’s image. We can argue over exactly what that means – is that divine image in our capacity to imagine, to create, to love, or in something else? But somehow, in some important ways, we are, every single one of us, stamped with the divine.
In fact, a lot of books on spirituality say more or less the same thing. I was reading a Buddhist book this past week that said this:
“Science, in its zeal for objectivity, tells us that we are our bodies, the product of Darwinian evolution, originating in a chance combination of molecular gasses, our growth and decay dictated by genetic DNA codes. Thus death is the end. But there is something in the collective unconscious of the human species that intuitively knows that this “objective” definition does not embrace the totality of who we are…” (Levine, Who Dies? viii)
That book would not use the phrase, but we can: we are made in the image of God.
When faced with a dilemma, Jesus upped the ante. He’s like the businesswoman who is forced to sell her store to her opponents but then goes out and buys the whole franchise. Give the coin to the Emperor, he says. It’s only a coin. But you….YOU belong to God.
The point is: we can argue over all kinds of rules and customs. But it’s who and what we are in relation to, that’s important. When we have a baptism, and we pour the water, we say: “So-and-so, child of God, you have marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit forever.” For us that’s yet another of the ways we are first made, and then re-made, in God’s image. And our lives can either be a fractured mirror, broken by the sadnesses and troubles and hurts we all go through, or as we grow in maturity and in thoughtfulness and in peace with our own selves and with others, we can grow more and more into the beings we were intended to be. Our reflections will tell the tale.
It’s not easy, of course. Even Moses, when he wanted to meet God, was told he could only see God “on the way by”. You cannot see my face, God answers. I will put you in a cleft in the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until my glory has passed by, and then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.
Rather than a clear-headed, divinely-ordained clarity about the meaning of life and love, most of us kind of muddle through. We live in a world that looks rather more like God’s backside than anything else. We get flashes of what we think might be the truth. But then we fall back into our routines, where life just passes and our email inboxes are so full we despair of ever answering all those messages and we have too many bills to pay and worries to worry about and occasionally real catastrophes, and most of the time we barely even feel awake.
Luther emphasized what he called the “hiddenness of God”. He called it, in Latin, Deus Absconditus. But the message of Matthew seems to be that while we struggle through the darkness, the clearest thing we can do is to seek that image of God in ourselves, and in serving others. The person sitting beside you right now – that is the image of God – for us Christians, that is what Jesus looks like. The baby brought to the font – he or she is the image of God. The foreigner, the immigrant, the differently-abled, the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned. That is what God looks like, for us.
It does feel just a bit weird, having a Jesus wallet. But it’s not Jesus who had a problem with faith and money being so close together. It’s us. When we realize – really realize – and take to heart the image of God in us and in those around us, then we will see that Jesus doesn’t just show up on wallets. He’s everywhere: calling us to real life, and real service, looking for how we can lift up and honour that holy image wherever we find it.