It’s Only Money

Sermon: It’s “Only” Money

Text: Matthew 22:15-22

Date: November 3, 2019

©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church


            Some of our more formal siblings in the Christian tradition make a habit of bowing toward the cross when they enter the sanctuary, using their bodies to make a gesture of respect toward Jesus.  That’s not normally my practice, but I want to bow to Jesus whenever I hear this gospel story of how he handled the opponents who were trying to trap him on a matter of whether it’s lawful to pay taxes to the emperor.  It was truly masterful.  First, he got them to pull a coin out of their pockets within the sacred precincts of the temple grounds–a bit of a “gotcha” moment in that such idolatrous coin which had the image of the emperor claiming to be divine stamped on it should not have been in the temple grounds to begin with, if one was strictly following the rules.  Second, he gives an answer which neatly escapes the trap they were trying to set while naming the big theological issue encompassing smaller theological disputes. 

Daniel Clarendin describes the scene: “The trick question elicited a trick answer from Jesus. He asked them for the coin that was used to pay the state tax, then asked whose image it bore…When Jesus’s questioners responded that the coin bore the image of Caesar, he replied with a cryptic and enigmatic answer: ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’ Rather than making an inflammatory political statement by denouncing Rome, maybe Jesus sought to evade their trap with a dismissive shrug—‘If the coin belongs to Caesar, let him have it. So what? It’s only money.’ In this scenario Jesus refused to take their bait. We might even imagine Jesus taunting his questioners by pocketing the coin.”[1] But the real kicker is in the second half of what he says: “Give to God the things that are God’s.” Which things are God’s?  Well…everything ultimately belongs to God.  Just as the coin was stamped with Caesar’s image, our faith tradition teaches us that we are stamped with God’s image.  Obligations to the empire are swallowed up by our indebtedness to God, our loyalty to and covenant with God. 

Jesus didn’t have to say more to the Herodians and the Pharisees, who were, the gospel says, “amazed;” they left knowing they had been schooled.  Maybe they bowed to their opponent Jesus on their way out the door. Respect.  I wonder if their encounter with Jesus inspired further thought about the place of taxes in particular and money in general in their lives.  I imagine they were as troubled then as we tend to be now about how money relates to a faithful life.  We have different political, social and religious systems, but some of the same issues regarding the meaning and power of money. 

Daniel Clarendin’s paraphrase of what Jesus said—‘If the coin belongs to Caesar, let him have it. So what? It’s only money’—cuts to the heart of the matter.  How often, if ever, can we make light of money in a money-obsessed world?  The book that forms the basis for the “A Wonder-full Life” worship series we’re starting today, Integrating Money and Meaning, got my attention right off the bat by sharing a story fragment from an East African legend told of King Sulemani and the Whale.  “This fish was bigger even than any whale we know—as big as a mountain!—and it had an equally enormous appetite: it ate and ate and ate until it had eaten all the food left in the kingdom.  And then it roared at the king for more!” Author Maggie Kulyk follows this brief epigraph with these words: “The image of a leviathan so enormous it can devour people, ships, even entire kingdoms, can be found through the world’s mythology and literature.  In many of those stories (Jonah and Pinnochio come to mind), people exist inside the belly of the colossal beast, perhaps unaware of their captivity, much less imagining any avenue of escape…Like King Sulemani’s whale, our money system—at least in the Western world—is truly colossal, encompassing every economic, social, industrial, and cultural structure that makes up our complex society.  And like Jonah and Pinocchio, we exist inside this daunting money system, often unaware of how it surrounds us and affects not just our daily tasks but also our inner spirit and the spirit of our communities.”[2] The author works with clients in a values-centered financial planning practice and says she sees the effect of living inside this whale every day when she interacts with her clients around money: “People are worried, stressed, confused, angry, occasionally joyful, but more often fearful when it comes to money.”  This mammoth whale of a money system in which we reside grows larger each day, impinging on politics, the environment, research, education, religion, food, health, entertainment, art—the list is endless.  The ever-expanding reach of money into every aspect of human civilization creates a good deal of angst within us as well as between us as the gap between haves and have-nots grows.

Kulyk says matter-of-factly, “money’s tendrils reach into every pocket of our being, starting when we are very young.”  I got a reminder of that in the mail a few weeks ago when my Aunt Gail returned a letter I had sent her when I was a pipsqueak freshman in high school.  For some reason she had hung on to it, and when she was going through her papers recently she found it and thought I might like to see a snapshot of my kid self.  It’s a pretty ridiculous letter (though not without its charms)—I open by saying I haven’t written to a grown-up before and was not sure what would be a proper topic to discuss.  Then I write, “I could tell you all about my finances.  Would that be all right?” I begin a list of my impending debts.  I owe Dad $74 for a new 10 speed bike; if I want to keep the stray dog that wandered to the farm I will have to spend $40 to get it spayed; I also owe Grandma five bucks.  Next line: “I tell ya, I’m getting worried.”  A little later in the letter I add a couple of postscripts. “Please ask Uncle Larry if I can buy his chess set from him some time in the future.  I won’t have enough cash for a few months.” Then, P.P.S. “Don’t stay awake at night worrying about how I’m gonna get all that money.  I’ve got a calf to sell.”   I remember none of this except the stray dogs who stayed with us.  It’s a little embarrassing.  But I think it illustrates Kulyk’s point that money’s tendrils can reach into every pocket of our being, beginning when we’re very young.  And early patterns or attitudes about money can stick with us for a long time.  I am not anxious about money full time, but I can and do go through periods when I get a bit obsessive about dollars and cents, where they’re coming from and where they’re going.  It’s interesting to see that trait revealed back to me at an early age.  I’ll give my youthful self a pat on the back for trying to relieve my dear aunt from staying up at night wondering where I was going to get the $119 I needed, plus extra to purchase the chess set I coveted.

Maggie Kulyk’s book on integrating money and meaning encourages readers to do some serious reflection on the attitudes we learned about money from our families and communities, because they cast a shadow over current attitudes and behaviors whether we are aware of it or not.  The worship theme today, “Looking Back,” turns us in the direction of our own histories—how has the ride been inside the belly of the whale of the money system in our lives so far?  How much angst or joy or wonder or anger do we bring to attitudes or decisions about money based on our biographies?  The book includes some suggestions to surface feelings based on money memories. “Start with the first money memory you can recall. Write it down, including how old you were,…and any feelings you recall around the experience.”  If possible, wherever you started, write something down chronologically every year after the starting point of your earliest memory about money.  Such a practice can act as a basis for a closer look at one’s own journey with money.  A second practice invites reflection on money memories around your parents or guardians, and asking yourself which aspects of parents’ behavior around money you embrace or deny.  Those early experiences shape us regarding our money as much as they do our manners or morals. 

Since stories of all sorts help us understand the world and our place in it, the author of Integrating Money and Meaning was inspired to make use of a well-known story in America, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” to hone in on what she calls “Money Energies.”  She sees in this film a lens through which various attitudes about money can be perceived.  A number of plot points in the film turn on money, as you probably know—getting it, keeping it, losing it, stealing it, giving it away, investing it in the community.  Kulyk watches the film every year with her family, and she paints a portrait of various characters as archetypes of various “Money Energies,” building on the work of Deborah Price in her book Money Magic.  I want to share a synopsis of these perceptions with you in the hopes that as we look back at our histories we might see in these characters some insight into our own money personalities, or money energies.

The first character she describes is “The Innocent” (Uncle Billy). The Innocent’s approach to money is like the ostrich with its head in the sand. They may be happy-go-lucky on the outside but are a little fearful and anxious on the inside. Their basic thought is, “I don’t want to deal with this, and I wish it would go away.” Or, “Somebody I love and trust should take care of this for me.” They want others to help them so they will feel “safe,” but there’s often an underlying fear that whoever is helping them will abandon them. Uncle Billy in It’s a Wonderful Life has Innocent energies. He’s happy and funny on the surface, but inside he’s fearful and anxious. He’s dependent on others for his job, even though he’s fairly unskilled and scatterbrained—always tying a string around his finger to remember something he’s forgotten. For Uncle Billy, the Innocent, when problems arise, he’s non-confrontational but worried, turning to alcohol to make his problems go away.

The Victim” is seen in dystopian Pottersville’s Ma Bailey. Victim energy assures us that our problems are not our fault—they’re someone else’s. Sometimes we really are dealing with financial and other types of difficulties outside of our control, but often we have a part in it we don’t want to admit. We’d rather find someone or something to blame. Ma Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life—that is, Ma from the dystopian alternate reality of Pottersville—is suspicious, distrustful, and bitter. When George comes to her house looking for help and mentions her brother, Uncle Billy, she turns him away, suspecting he’s trying to take advantage of her. George isn’t her problem and she’s used to people abusing her. She’s a Victim.

The Warrior” is seen in character Sam Wainwright. Warrior energy is focused, decisive, and gets things done. The caveat is that people with strong Warrior energy can get into the “sport” of it and forget it’s related to anything meaningful in their lives. Dealing with money becomes the thing itself. Sam Wainwright captures this in It’s a Wonderful Life. Sam is the friend of Mary and George who gets in on the ground floor of the plastics industry in the 1920s, becoming wealthy and successful. He is portrayed as someone who inherited the opportunity, but who also understands the business world and is blithely unconflicted about making tons of money. He is somewhat goofy and materialistic, but also seems full of a certain joie de vivre (Hee Haw!).

The Martyr” is George Bailey Jr. We all know people with a high dose of the Martyr: resentful, self-sacrificing, long-suffering. On the outside they may be

smiling, but inside they’re resentful. They are often perfectionists, expecting a lot

from themselves and others and living with disappointment. There is certainly

nothing wrong with caring for others, or giving of our time, energy, and money.

The problem comes when the energy is used to rescue others while taking away

their opportunity to help themselves, or when the giving comes at the expense of

the giver. It’s a Wonderful Life protagonist George Bailey Jr. suffers from some

serious Martyr leanings. He stays home to help his father take care of the building and loan and gives his college money to his brother. He dreams of traveling, but when his father dies, he stays home to keep the business going. He even gives up his honeymoon to save the building and loan. Meanwhile, he grows darker and more resentful as the years roll on. (That is, until the end of the movie!)

The Tyrant” is, of course, Mr. Potter. People with Tyrant energy use money to control people, events, and circumstances. At its core, this energy springs from deep-rooted fears and can spread easily into anger, almost like an addiction. This energy might have started in a healthy way—perhaps as a kind of Warrior energy—but it has grown wild into a tool for power. Tyrant energy can be found in people with a little or a lot of money. If money is used to control others, and that control is based in fear and anger, the Tyrant is showing its colors. It’s not hard to see who the Tyrant is in It’s a Wonderful Life. As a somewhat one-dimensional character, Mr. Potter fits the model perfectly in his black suit and heavy wooden wheelchair pushed around by his flunky. He has a lot of money and uses it to get more. With no family, he seems to care about nothing but control over all the businesses in Bedford Falls.

The Fool” shows up in the angel Clarence Odbody. Everyone loves the Fool. People with Fool energy are fun and spontaneous. Unlike the Innocent, who may seem optimistic on the outside but inside is anxious, the Fool is genuinely optimistic, inside and out. They also tend to be very generous. The problem with this “live for today” attitude is that it’s not always grounded in reality. People with a lot of this energy are not quite telling themselves the whole story. They don’t want to look at things realistically or bother to do the math because they might miss out on something. No, that would be a downer. In It’s a Wonderful Life, Clarence Odbody, George Bailey’s guardian angel, has a bit of the Fool in him. He exists quite literally outside of the money system, so he’s the perfect image of this energy. When he’s told he’ll be returning to earth to help George, he has no clue how difficult it’s going to be to convince him that he shouldn’t throw away his

life. In Nick’s bar, Clarence seems oblivious to the harsh reality around him (and to the fact that he has no money).

The Creator/Artist” appears in Mary Hatch Bailey. The energy of the Creator/Artist is one of spirit and creativity. People with a strong level of this energy tend to be internally motivated and non-materialistic. The problem is that they like the freedom that money brings, but don’t want to be “sullied” by the material world. They may feel that because they are spiritual beings, they should not have to deal with money. The issue is not the amount of money they have, but the fear that they’re not being true to themselves and the belief that money is somehow tainting them. The one character in It’s a Wonderful Life who most approximates this energy is George’s wife, Mary, though it’s not a perfect fit. Like the Creator/Artist, she is not at all materialistic. At the beginning of the movie, she eschews the advances of Sam Wainwright, the wealthy entrepreneur, in favor of her real love for George. She doesn’t mind living in a drafty, leaky house, as long as she can pursue her joys: raising her family and helping others. We don’t know from the movie whether Mary is disdainful of money and the material world or whether she worries about “selling out”—common characteristics of the Creator/Artist.[3]

Do you see any clues about your own or your family’s money energies in these archetypal characters?  The point of such imaginative exercises is not to pigeonhole ourselves or others, but to surface patterns that may be affecting our behavior at a subconscious level.  You could dream up a name for a “money energy” that seems to dominate your own behavior around money that has nothing to do with this story based typology—one person mentioned in Kulyk’s book, for instance, recognizes in herself a severe woman with martyr and tyrant energies she nicknames “The Matron.” She tries to recognize the Matron’s voice in her head in time to keep her from taking over. 

Circling back to the gospel, let’s recall what Jesus had to say about a looming financial issue: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” We can’t escape dealing with the whale of a money system in which we are engulfed.  But we can strive to remember in every money-related decision and all the financial angst that gets stirred up that it’s only money.  We may be sitting in the belly of a whale of financial complexity, but God’s grandeur surrounds even that big fish in the ocean of creation, in a sea of love and mercy.  Remember what ultimately happened to Jonah in that whale story: God directed the whale to belch Jonah back up onto the shore so he could carry on with the work he had been summoned to do.  Imagine him there on a lovely beach, soaked in whale bile but breathing in the fresh salt air, seeing the trees waving greenly on shore, hearing the seabirds sing out their praises.  What gratitude he must have felt to be living apart from the belly of the beast in which he had sojourned!  Perhaps he bowed on the sand, kissing the good earth and giving thanks for his life. That’s what we’re questing after, friends; gratitude and balance as we render unto God all that belongs to God—our lives, our gifts, and our praise, beginning now, beginning again today.


[2] Kulyk, Maggie (with Liz McGeachy) Integrating Money and Meaning: Practices for a Heart-Centered Life, 2019 Location 53 in the Kindle edition

[3] Ibid Kulyk, with thanks to Marcia McFee at the Worship Design Studio for summarizing her work; McFee’s summary is quoted here. 


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