17 November 2012

Idols in our Pockets

"What's in your wallet?"

 It's a fair question, considering the world we live in.

What's in my wallet is identification. There is some cash in there--or at least there was before my daughter asked me for some money to cover her weekend expenses. There are credit cards, health insurance cards, "frequent shopper" benefits, and stuff like that.

 "What's in your wallet?"

 It's the tag line for a credit card company, too. I won't promote the name, but their ads often feature pagan spokespeople who take time from pillaging (and Christmas shopping) to inquire about viewers' means of payment.

"What's in your wallet?"

It's a leading question, one that was asked by Jesus Christ at a time and in a context that placed his ministry in political peril. Every student of the gospels know that Jesus instructed his followers to "Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar's" (Mark 12 and Luke 20).

Few may remember that before he stated that, Jesus asked: "What's in your wallet?" (Or something like that.) In my version of the Bible, the TNIV, he actually says, "Bring me a denarius and let me look at it" (Mark 12.15).

It's a funny question because it was supposed to be a trap.  Should we pay taxes to Caesar?  There was no easy answer to that question in 1st-century Judaea.  No one liked taxes, yet there was one thing more fatal to a public career than endorsing Roman taxes, and that was challenging them.

It was a trap that Jesus answered first with the words, "what's in your wallet?" or "show me a denarius."

We infer from Jesus' words that he didn't have a denarius on him.  We might even wonder if Jesus knew what a denarius looked like.  With a little digging into scripture, we can understand why he didn't have one.

A Roman denarius was worth a day's wages for a laborer, around $80 today, so perhaps it's not surprising that Jesus didn't carry these coins around with him. But it wasn't just the value that may have prevented Jesus from carrying one of his own, it was the appearance of these coins, too: encircling the image of Caesar on the "heads" side were the words, "Son of the divine (Augustus)," and on back, the words, "high priest" surrounded the image of a goddess.

In other words, the coins born inscriptions quite similar to those that Jesus' followers would make about him in the weeks after his Resurrection.  But Christ's accusers carried more than words in their wallets.

The engravings of Tiberius and the godess found on the denarius would seem to violate the prohibition in the 2nd Commandment: "You shall not make for yourself a graven image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below" (Ex 20.4).  The word, "graven" (from the Middle English word "grafen,") carries two meanings. It can mean an image that is sculpted, much like the idols of the near east. It can also mean "to stamp or impress deeply."  After all, it's the root of the word, "engrave."

Deuteronomy 4.16 strengthens this prohibition.  It warns Israel against making "any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air."  A similar prohibition continues in Islam today, which forbids the use of images in art, particularly those of Mohammed.

Pagans and wallets. They weren't merely subjects for an ad campaign in Jesus' day, they were at the center of contentious, theological debate.

In a way, Jesus' question, "What's in your wallet?" was another way to demand, "Bring out your idols."

And when someone produced a coin, it meant that Jesus had out-radicalized them before he could get to the words, "Give unto Caesar...."  The questioner carried in his wallet Caesar's image--which happened to be very valuable to the bearer--far too valuable to give back in the form of a tax.  Jesus didn't carry Caesar's image. Therefore there was little for him to hold onto--little for him to tug back and forth with the Roman authorities--little for Jesus to hold closer to his heart than the Father.

I am left to wonder, then, what's in my wallet--whether I might be carrying idols around on my person.

Foreign Coins, Foreign Figures
I've long been as fascinated with the appearance of money as with the accumulation of it.  The bill and the coin is an avenue into the heart of a nation's culture--and the more I have traveled, the more I have learned to appreciate how coins represent cultures.

I have a jar of coins on my living room mantle left over from my days adventuring over Europe before the age of the Euro. There are about ten countries represented. When I look for gods I find them on the "heads" of coins from Switzerland, France, Greece and Italy. All but Greece feature goddesses.  Italy and Greece feature the heads of the goddess & god in profile while France and Switzerland feature the image from head to toe.

Other countries feature political figures. England and Canada are engraved with Queen Elizabeth's image.  I have two Spanish coins, one with the dictator Franco (1966) and one with King Juan Carlos (1980).  I have a Turkish coin and one from Hungary that feature their nations' founders, Kemal Ataturk and Lajos Kossuth, respectively. (The coins featured in the picture are--clockwise from top left--England, Turkey, Italy, US nickel (front), US penny (tails), Greece and Switzerland.)

Even more fascinating than the coins are the bills. Coins have changed very little since the days of Tiberius Caesar. Bills are a modern development, and they are far more customized to describe their country.  From my travels in Europe throughout the 1990s, I remember the British pound proudly promoting three titans of the nation's history: the Duke of Wellington, William Shakespeare and James Watt.  I have a ten-pound note that I keep (my first paid writing commission) that bears the image of Florence Nightingale  Of course every British banknote also features one side with Queen Elizabeth's portrait.

I don't have a wide collection, but my 100,000 Turkish Lira note bears Ataturk's image on both sides--his portrait on one, and a picture of him accepting flowers from children on the other. I collected this note in 1999, 60 years after Ataturk's death, no less, demonstrating the enormous power that Turkey's founder continues to wield.  My 1,000,000 Turkish Lira note (which was worth about $2.50 when I visited in 1999) had a picture of a dam.

My 1000 Italian Lira note bears Maria Montessori's image. I can't emphasize how cool it is that a nation would feature a teacher on a banknote.  My communist-era Albanian note is a fascinating look at the darkest year (1976) of that nation's red paranoia.  A pickaxe and a gun mark one side, guarding the construction of an apartment building (complete with cranes and scaffolding), while on the other side young men and women march in military formation, carrying the Albanian flag (and Kalashnikovs) [Pictured].

I remember seeing Austrian "schilling" bills with doctors and engineers on them and thinking to myself: wow, science and technology is really important to this country.  What is important in mine?

American Gods
A look at American coins and bills shows a fascination with government, plain and simple.  The graven images on the coins that Americans carry are of politicians, not of gods (I'll let someone else explain the "tails" sides of American coinage).  Do Americans worship great presidents?  I think we do to a certain extent. One need only visit the U.S. Capitol, tour the Rotunda and stare up at the Apotheosis of Washington painted on the dome's interior in 1865 to verify this tendency.

Moreover, the presidents featured on American coins share one common feature: they presided over significant steps in the establishment and expansion of American government.  Washington fought to establish the United States, presided over the Constitutional Convention, and served only two terms as the nation's first president.  As president, Jefferson doubled the size of the nation with the Louisiana Purchase and presided over America's first overseas military adventure "to the shores of Tripoli," as the Marine hymn says.  Lincoln fought to keep the Union together in the face of rebellion and then oversaw an enormous increase in federal power established in the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.  And FDR set the federal government on the course to where it is today, acting more as an insurer of economic security than a defender of national security.  These men weren't gods, per se, but they were key players who brought the U.S. government to greater heights of power.

Now look at American bills.  Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson have their own bills.  The other bills feature general-presidents like Andrew Jackson, who crushed native power in the Southeast as a general and expelled them as president, and Ulysses S Grant whose generalship saved the union in the Civil War and whose presidency shamelessly rewarded private railroad and mining interests.  Two non-presidents are also featured as well, Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton.

Apparently no public figure since Grant has been worthy of having his or her image on a bill. I think that part of this is because few people idolize public figures anymore. World War I ended the age of kings in Europe, and it is no coincidence that--in America at least--no public figure since (with the exception of FDR on the tiny dime) has been engraved into metal or paper.

The backs of U.S. bills are no less revealing. With the exception of the $1 (US symbols) and the $2 (portrait of the signing of the Declaration of Independence) bills, they all feature government buildings: the White House, the Capitol, the U.S. Treasury, the Lincoln Temple/Memorial.

What's in my wallet?  It's the United States government and the men who consecrated it.

It isn't Caesar's graven image that holds me in thrall, it's Washington's, Lincoln's and Franklin's.  It isn't a priestess engraved on the "tails" side but martial eagles, eye-capped pyramids, and public temples

And despite every coin's engraving, "In God we Trust," my money isn't God.

It is as divisive as it was in Christ's day. In an era when pushing the nation over a "fiscal cliff" is seen by some as preferable to paying taxes, "what's in your wallet?" engenders a religious fervor equivalent to that which confronted Jesus in the day of the Tiberian denarius.

And I think that Christ's question remains a challenge that may be even more difficult for Christ-followers to accept today than it was among his homeless band of disciples. "Show me a denarius." A denarius was anathema to Christ and his followers, who trafficked a currency that--like its kingdom--was not of this world.

Looking back, I think that the best response to Jesus' direction, "show me a denarius," would have been this: "What's a denarius?"

Looking forward, perhaps Christians' best responses to "what's in your wallet?" just might eventually become--in that perfect Kingdom--"What is a wallet?"

Two Notes:
If I were in Congress (don't worry, I never will be), I would like to see U.S. currency feature a broader range of historical figures, much like the European bills did in the decades before the Euro.  To me, American Inventors should be celebrated for a time.  I would nominate 

  • Thomas Edison ($1)
  • Eli Whitney ($5)
  • Orville & Wilbur Wright ($10)
  • George Washington Carver ($20)
  • Alexander Graham Bell ($100)

Possible alternatives: Benjamin Franklin, Robert Fulton, Samuel F.B. Morse, Cyrus McCormick, Steve Jobs

Comment below and tell me what you think.  Would you add writers? Civil Rights Figures? Movie Stars?

This blog owes a debt to N.T. Wright's book, How God Became King, and his description of the exchange found on pages 147-149. Suffice it to say, I recommend the book. This is one of many fascinating ideas I got from reading it.