“Do you have any spare change?” When I walked the streets of New York City, back in
my seminary days, I was asked that question a lot. These days, I don’t carry coins at all. These
days, it’s hard to find a parking meter that takes coins. These days, coins just don’t go very far.
Is carrying change a thing of the past? Not yet. Have you seen the quarters they’ve come
out with lately? In May 2022, the U.S. Mint released a redesigned quarter. The profile of the
face of George Washington is still on it. But now, his face is turned to the right, and the words
“In God We Trust” are behind him.
When the new coins were released, some folks on social media claimed they were all
about how our country’s religious views had taken a turn for the worse. Here’s a fact: The fastest
growing segment of our population is people who have been named “nones.” A “none” is
someone who claims no religious affiliation. In the last forty years “nones” have grown from 5%
of the population to 25%, making them as numerous as evangelical Protestants. Today, there
are as many “nones” as there are Roman Catholics.
Actually, a right-facing George Washington isn’t news. Ninety years ago, Laura Gardia
Fraser, one of the 20th century’s most prolific female sculptors, designed that face for a
competition. It was part of how the United States celebrated the bicentennial of Washington’s
birthday. Her design didn’t win back in 1932, but now, it’s a big part of the “American Women
The U.S. Mint created these designs to remember distinguished American women and
the contributions they’ve made to our country. Dr. Sally Ride and Maya Angelou were among
the first. They’re being followed by Eleanor Roosevelt and Ida B. Wells. Next year, an Episcopal
priest who was also a lawyer and worked on Supreme Court civil rights cases - the Rev. Dr. Pauli
Murray will have an image of her face on a quarter.
In today’s Gospel passage Jesus isn’t carrying coins. He has to ask for “the coin used for
the tax” (Matthew 22:19). “Whose head is this, and whose title?” Jesus asks the Pharisees and
Herodians (22:20). They had come to ask Jesus a trick question. And Matthew’s Gospel says
Jesus was aware of their malice toward him (22:18). He knew those religious leaders were
plotting to trap him, to try and get him arrested (22:15).
The coin in question was a denarius. It had an image of the Roman Emperor. But the
image on that coin carried meaning our coins do not. Roman citizens saw their emperor as
their god. I wonder: How many Americans really see their president as God?
Jesus knows that’s how the Romans see their emperor. It’s what Jesus does with that
Roman coin - how it figures in his answer - that I’m asking us to consider today. Here’s what he
does: Jesus answers with a “both-and.” Give to both, he says. “Give…to the Emperor the things
that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (22:21). It’s not an either-or
answer, like the Pharisees and Herodians are expecting.
Jesus knows that, just like most relationships, the relationship between religion and
government, the relationship between faith and politics is…well, complicated. The relationship
between the two is far too complex to reduce to an “either-or” question like “Is it lawful to pay
taxes…or not?” It’s a both-and, Jesus tells them. Here’s another one:
In 1959, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a sermon called “A Tough Mind, A Tender
Heart.” King said people need to learn to hold a “balance of opposites,” difficult as that may be.
To be both idealistic and realistic. To be both self-assertive and humble.
King based his sermon on an earlier passage from Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus says,
“Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (10:16). In his sermon, Dr. King applied that verse
“to the struggle for…civil rights…saying people must have ‘tough minds’ and ‘tender hearts’”
(Jemar Tisby, “Footnotes,” 10/21/23).
Life, if we’re honest, is full of both-ands. Both-ands can make us uncomfortable -
especially in our relationships. By the time we’ve lived life for awhile, we, along with our friends
and family members, make up a human constellation of “both-ands.” Both old and young. Both
single and married. Both conservative and liberal. Both straight and gay. Both tough and
tender. Both male and female - including images on our coins.
The “Both-and” Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel isn’t saying we need to choose between
honoring just one or the other. Instead, he’s talking about which one of the two - the emperor
and God - is to receive the greater honor. People knew what the emperor and his government
expected of them. But God expected something more.
I invite you to consider today what God expects of us, you and me. Here are some
questions to guide us: How are we honoring God? What belongs to God? How do we, made in
the image of God, show forth God’s image - not some other image - in our daily lives? What
does it mean for us to give to God what belongs to God?
I have a confession to make. I’ve been saying, from this pulpit and to members of the
Mission Council, that I’ll be sending a stewardship letter this month. I plan to write about why
and how I give back to God, through All Saints’ Church and beyond.
I still plan to write and send that letter. But I’ve now decided - in light of the fact that
Bishop Phoebe will be with us in two weeks and, after worship and fellowship with us, she will
meet with me and your elected leaders - I’m going to send that letter after the Bishop visits.
Meanwhile, you and I have some time to reflect.
If we’re made in God’s image, how do we not owe God everything? Here’s how one
Christian theologian puts it: “If everything belongs to God, then our spiritual lives and our
political lives must…not contradict each other.…(But) ’giving to the emperor’ must always take
second place to what we give back to God” (Debie Thomas, journeywithjesus.net , 10/11/20).
Friends, Jesus is telling us: Give to God what is God’s - and not just our spare change.
~ The Rev. Thomas. A. Momberg
Priest in Charge
All Saints’ Episcopal Church
1508 S. White Station Road
Memphis, TN 38117