20 October 2013
James Ishmael Ford
First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island
And they send unto him certain of the Pharisees and of the Herodians, to catch him in his words. And when they were come, they say unto him, Master, we know that thou art true, and carest for no man: for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth: Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not? Shall we give, or shall we not give? But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, Why tempt ye me? bring me a coin, that I may see it. And they brought it. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? And they said unto him, Caesar’s. And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. And they marvelled at him.
Mark 12: 13-17
Perhaps you heard about the man who returned home from Sunday services at the local Unitarian church, flustered and angry. His wife who had a mild cold and had not attended, asked what was the problem? He said, “It was disgusting. I can’t believe what that minister thinks is appropriate subject matter for a sermon.” “Oh, dear,” she replied. “He went on about sex again?” “No, no, much worse. He talked about money.”
As you might imagine, that’s a popular joke among ministers and members of annual pledge drive committees. We can get really antsy about discussing money in church. A real life colleague, after being told he spoke about money all the time, went back and did a word search on his sermons from that past year. He’d used the word money in the previous nine months exactly five times.
Now, the truth be told, we’re not the only spiritual people who get anxious about discussions of money. In the Buddhist blogosphere there’s been some controversy of late about how Buddhist teachers in the West earn their livings. In East and South Asia teaching has largely been the province of monastics who are supported by the larger community and who in turn teach without a direct connection to how they are supported. There are exceptions, particularly in Japan, but that monastic model and teaching being given without charge is generally assumed. The term often cited is “the Dharma, the teachings, cannot be bought or sold.”
In the West there is no substantial network of monastics, those communities that do exist, exist largely because of immigrant communities continuing the patterns of their countries of origin. However within the convert community many teachers are either lay people or folk ordained in the non-monastic traditions from Japan. And so we have a situation where people who’ve devoted their lives to the Buddhist way and are now teaching are struggling to find how to support themselves and their families in a context where money is seen as contaminating the very thing they love as their very heart.
Reading about this situation among the Western Buddhist sangha, and from there how we in our liberal religious communities also feel that divide, I found that phrase, “filthy lucre” bubbling up within my heart. And I decided, enough of sex, let’s look at money, today. Filthy lucre. It just rolls so nicely off the tongue. So, evocative, haunting, and for anyone who gives it a moment’s thought in any era since the Phoenicians invented money, ironic. We’ll get to that. But, first, I also like subtitles for my sermons. Pretty much as a shadow follows any object, a subtitle carries the point to be reflected on, right on home. It this case I thought, “A Meditation on the Divided Heart and It’s Healing.”
That settled, I started researching, beginning with the good old google machine. My preferred terms were “sermon,” “Unitarian,” and “money.” The fourth subject on the front page to pop up was a sermon with that very title. Preached by me. Some four years ago, as it turns out. After reading it, I offer all of you who heard it my apologies. I sure can go on.
This time I will spare you my detailed analysis of the evolution of thinking about money in the Bible and where it has gone since. But, I remain, as I was then, caught by the story of Jesus and the coin with Caesar’s face on it. And I invite us once again to visit that coin. It appears in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, the ones that might actually contain a bit of the real Jesus. In fact there’s even a variation on the story in the wondrous and compelling gnostic Gospel According to Thomas. The punch line hangs in the human imagination and is a core part of our cultural inheritance. As the version in Mark goes, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Like the story of the camel and the eye of the needle, this is a story of Jesus being put on the spot and responding with a bit of sophistry. That it is repeated in all three of the synoptic gospels, and Thomas, to boot, inclines me to think it may really be one of the good rabbi’s actual sayings as opposed to the likes of “I am the way and the truth and the life,” which only occurs in one gospel, and that one written perhaps eighty or even more years after Jesus died.
Over the past two thousand years people have really wrestled with the story and that line about the coin, and the divide it implies between the material and the spiritual. Filthy lucre. Actually it was William Tyndale who gave us the term “filthy lucre.” It was his creative translation from a line in Titus that more conventional and prosaic translators have rendered “shameful gain.” For us, however, filthy lucre is usually extended to include money, period. There can be no doubt when we consider the story of Jesus and the coin; the coin is for most of us, filthy.
As I said this text has really been worked. Over the years perhaps the most popular interpretation has been that we indeed owe the state taxes. Okay. But, a second understand follows hard on, asserting there is in fact a great divide between our spiritual and our material lives. The filth is on the earth. The clean is in heaven. Or, thinking of the Buddhist controversy, the Dharma is uncontaminated, pure, and not part of the world.
I consider this understanding of spiritual and material, wildly popular I note in so many cultures and religions, one of the most profound errors we can make. Let me say it again. Dividing our spiritual and material lives is a categorical error about the nature of reality. Treating it as true has terrible consequences for our own lives and for the lives of everyone on this planet, indeed for the planet itself. This alleged divide between our spirituality and our lived lives needs to be challenged as the lie it is. And, I just have.
Here’s the good news. We are woven out of the world, precious and unique, but completely the stuff of the world’s stuff. Our individual lives are never to be repeated, a one off presentation of the world, and each of us is to be cherished in all its, your, my fragility and passingness. And, so deeply connected, we, precious, unique and passing, are all of us also intimately connected, born from and destined to return to this mysterious wondrous world. The connections are so intimate we can say with deep truth, we and the world, are one.
And this means things. If we put all our hope into some sweet by and bye, we miss the moment, we miss this moment. And doing that we miss our lives where they really are, we lose the treasure where it really is.
This whole thing is not unlike a coin, perhaps the very coin that Jesus held in his hand for all to see. Besides the tax thing and the dualistic assertion that cuts a line between our material and spiritual lives, there is a third view of that story, a minority report from our ancestors. And, I suggest, a vastly more useful one for us. Some commentators point out that every Jew present at that conversation knew that everything belongs to God, period, full-stop. The spiritual and the material are one. And so offering Caesar what is his, was in fact offering him nothing.
Setting aside for today how much Buddhists like nothing, the real coin is a bit magical. On one side it reads me. On the other side it reads we. And knowing this as our intimate truth is that famous turning from greed to giving. It is the discovery of love, the love that will guide us through the hard night.
There has been much made in the last few years about finding a purpose driven life. I’m all for that. I think we need to find our purpose in life. And our tradition gives us some signposts on the way, if we want to avail ourselves of the possibilities. And I hope we do. I hope you do.
So, let’s look at the issue where the rubber so often hits the road. As the current pope has been widely quoted saying, “reject the cult of money.” Avoid “shameful gain.” I think this is true. There are many things we can do that are shameful. But, we need to know, as well, there’s nothing inherently wrong with money in and of itself. Money is the extension of our power. Money is power. Use it badly, and hurt follows. Recall that wise admonition. Money isn’t the root of all evil, it’s the love of money that’s the root of hurt. It’s grasping after it, rather than dancing with it. Money is power. Ever since those Phoenicians. Own your power, use your power, but don’t get confused about what’s really important.
I suggest a very good place to start is to look at your check register. That casts light on what we’re about more than almost anything. It reveals an often embarrassingly detailed account of what we actually are in this world. So, this can be a harsh self-assessment. But I hope we don’t turn away. Use that check register. Make it something holy. Make your money proof of your wisdom, of your love, of your true life.
And, more, more: give your attention to the doing of this world. If you think Buddhist teachings are valuable, support the teachers in reasonable and honorable ways. You think this church is doing something precious and valuable. Give it your support. Lend it your power.
The bottom line is this: This life is not a dress rehearsal. What you see is what you get. We are called by the love at the center of things to fully engage, to engage with reckless abandon, our deepest selves, each other and this precious, sweet and hurt world.
Each of us, and all things.
Like that coin, like that coin.