As it’s been nine months since the last installment of this project, let’s recap: Parts one to four were primarily concerned with the foundational, regulative virtue of prudence, and the last four parts continued to identify ways in which individuals can improve themselves. These were virtues of humility, nonjudgmentalism, and nonpossessiveness. We explored these three virtues by working through, on the one hand, the three chief sections of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount: the Antitheses, the teachings on prayer, and on anxiety; and on the other, the parables of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the Wheat and the Weeds, and the Rich Fool. Next, we move onto issues of a more social nature, still focusing on nonpossessiveness to begin with, but applying it to the theme of “mammon” or “worldly riches.”
What have we learned about the virtue of nonpossessiveness so far? Essentially, it is a strong disposition of character against acquisition—which must not be allowed to become an end in itself—and against attachment to material things or to people, including—if not especially—oneself. It requires mindfulness of how attachments, again to people as well as to objects, can lead us into selfish behaviors, and that however carefully we plan the future it may not turn out as we wish. This virtue is not only morally valuable, but is also intrinsically connected to our happiness: the non-possessive person, being more resilient and hence also more free, will not be worried about their life (Matt. 6:25–28).
Possessiveness Toward Money
The Gospel of Luke has a focus on wealth and social justice, and this tone is set in its introduction to Jesus’s ministry by listing the political leaders of the time (Luke 3:1–3). This detail not only fixes the timeline of the events in history, but sets the context of the unjust establishment that Jesus’s words and actions will critique. Here is one of Jesus’s most famous statements about money, recorded later on in this gospel:
[Some pharisees tried] to trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor. So they asked him… ‘Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But he perceived their craftiness and said to them, ‘Show me a denarius [a coin]. Whose head and whose title does it bear?’ They said, ‘The emperor’s.’ He said to them, ‘Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were not able… to trap him… and being amazed by his answer, they became silent (Luke 20:20–26).
The contrast of opposites Jesus makes between the emperor and God puts the focus on the emperor’s claimed divinity. You might think that Jesus’s God is a false god also, but that would not stop the ethical implications of his words being interesting for us today. Since the coins’ inscriptions identified Caesar as divine (and thus were regarded by the Hebrews as idolatrous images), by asking to be shown a coin Jesus further highlights the contrast he is making. This is especially cunning because the pharisees would have been hoping that if Jesus did not condemn himself by denouncing the Roman establishment, that they would be able to expose him as a hypocrite for endorsing Caesar. Instead, they have fallen into their own trap by (presumably) showing that they, unlike Jesus, are carrying some of the idolatrous coins. Hence, the Markian account of this exchange says that Jesus was “recognizing their hypocrisy”(Mark 12:15).
The gospel accounts tell us the rhetorical effect this exchange had, but much like a parable, the meaning of Jesus’s words is left open for us to ponder. One interpretation is that by emphasizing that the emperor is a false god, Jesus is making a thinly veiled call to refuse paying taxes to him. This would interpret the key line “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (v. 25), as meaning everything ultimately belongs to the true Creator, (cf. part 8) and therefore there is nothing that belongs to Caesar to give back to him. That line can equally be interpreted, however, as meaning it is right to pay taxes to the emperor. Without identifying which things are actually the emperor’s and which are God’s, the line is ambiguous, but Jesus could well mean that because money is ultimately a worldly thing with a worldly function, it is effectively the emperor’s. Moreover, if we insisted on holding on to the money instead of paying our taxes, that would be giving in to the vice of possessiveness.
We could complain that Jesus was just being deliberately evasive—perhaps to avoid being handed “over to… the governor”—but the indirectness of his answer has other purposes. The social justice activist Symon Hill notes its function as participatory pedagogy. Jesus wants people to think for themselves, and this statement “encourages everyone to think about what is really the emperor’s and what is really God’s.” Jesus’s answer also has a symbolic character it would not have if it had been direct, transcending the particular issue of tax to broader issues of the imperial rule he lived under.
Hill’s interpretation along these lines is premised on the fact that the “Greek word ‘apodote’ translated as ‘give’ also means ‘pay back’ or ‘return.’” Hence, while it can be read as paying taxes, with this double meaning it could equally mean that the emperor’s coins should be returned to him. Hill’s reasoning is that “Jesus’s listeners were ‘amazed’ by his answer. If he was simply telling people to pay taxes to Rome, there would be nothing to be amazed about.” Hence, there is the distinct possibility that he was instead making a play on words, suggesting that “the imperial system of which the coinage is part should be sent back to the emperor, back to Rome.” If so, while his words sound innocent enough to us, to the original audience it would have been like “Romans, Go Home!” graffitied over a massive wall.
Of course, Hill’s interpretation remains somewhat speculative, but it is correct at least insofar as that Jesus did not reject paying tax but was actually more radical than that. Jesus’s setting up of Caesar and God as opposites makes it clear where his allegiances lie, but he recognizes that to break Caesar’s own rules would just be to play his game. Indeed, the biblical scholar Walter Wink observed that “the rules are Caesar’s, but how one responds to the rules is God’s, and Caesar has no power over that.” Jesus is therefore making a call to challenge Caesar’s rules in an inward, Stoic sense, “returning” or rejecting the economic system, not by refusing to participate in it, but by participating in a way that maintains an inner freedom from the culture of possessiveness it engenders. This response need not be a private, individual one, but can be manifested socially in communities that value nonpossessiveness, such as Jesus’s followers.
This conclusion is supported by other passages. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes a similar binary distinction: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt. 6:24). In this case, mammon, which is better translated as “worldly riches” than as the traditional “money,” takes the place of the emperor, but what is referred to by the emperor and mammon is much the same. It is the worship of the worldly, “the greed that is idolatry” (Col. 3:5). Jesus’s statement is another use of hyperbole in the Sermon: of course one could serve and love two masters. Even if one may not love them both to the same extent, that is far from hating one of them. No, the point that Jesus is getting at is that it is not possible to live one’s life giving ultimate allegiance to both of these “masters,” because they are priorities that are opposed. Thus, in the judgments we make amid our day-to-day activities, we should choose to take a spiritual perspective on life rather than a materialistic one (cf. part 6).
The Gospel of Luke adjoins this “God and mammon” passage to its parable of the Dishonest Manager (16:1–13), which we discussed in part 3. There we discerned the message of shrewdness, as a component of prudence, but the fact that the gospel places this other statement there indicates that that parable is also about the moral use of money. The dishonest manager, remember, made himself “friends” in form of debtors by reducing their debts, but Jesus was not suggesting that we literally bribe people into liking us. Rather, I think a second message of this parable is making another contrast with a worldly economic system: the culture of possessiveness that abounds in such a system would have you hoard wealth to yourself, even if it closes you off from other people. But Jesus is saying it is better to have friends than money, better to hold on to things loosely, with hands available and open toward others.
Jesus’s words on “God and mammon” and the “Dishonest Manager” support my conclusion about the “God and Caesar” passage because they do not reject the use of money but an inner attitude of possessiveness toward it. Likewise, Saint Paul, who is often misquoted, said that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10), not money itself. When you look at your bank statement at the end of the month—or if you are like me, on the rare occasion you can bear to do so—are you sad at how much money is no longer there to be yours, or are you perhaps ashamed that the things you should have spent the least and the most on seem to have gotten switched around? In any case, it is so easy to become a slave to money, to the accumulation of wealth for its own sake, and that is why we need reminding that money, a social construct, is the servant of people, not the other way around.
Jesus’s moral philosophy, as we have seen, suggests how money can be used morally, but as we will see in the next part, this is further developed via identifying what immoral usage of money looks like.
The Walter Wink quote comes from his 1992 book Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance In A World of Domination, as cited on page 163 of Symon Hill’s new book The Upside Down Bible: What Jesus Really Said About Money, Sex, and Violence—which is very much recommended.