” . . . he overturned the tables of the money-changers” Matthew 21:12
Our Holy Week addresses this year focus upon five objects from the events of the week; five objects which are significant details of the story; five objects that point beyond themselves, five objects that point to truths for us to see, five objects that ask questions of us.
Coins appear on four occasions during the week; each appearance at a significant moment.
There are the coins of principle. After riding into the Jerusalem to the cheers of the crowds, we read in Saint Matthew Chapter 21 Verse 12, “Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves”. There would have been a cacophony of sound as Jesus drove out the traders, shouts and yells from the dealers, the sound of the frightened animals, and the distinctive sound of coins hitting a stone floor. The coins are at the heart 0f Jesus’ anger; they represented the straightforward exploitation of faithful people.
Pilgrims to the Temple would wish to make a sacrifice, but they could not bring their own animal with them, it must be bought at the Temple. Ostensibly the rule was to ensure the purity of the animals, to ensure that the sacrifice might be one that was pleasing to God, but it allowed great scope for profiteering, great scope for sellers to charge prices far higher than might have been paid elsewhere. Pilgrims had also to pay a Temple tax, it amounted to as much as a day’s wages for poorer people, but it could not be paid in ordinary currency, it had to be paid in a Temple currency that had to be bought from the money changers – they would charge as much as a further day’s wages as commission for changing the coins.
The sound of the coins is the sound of Jesus standing up for principles , standing up for the poor, the sound of Jesus showing anger at exploitation.
When we read the story now, it is easy to pass by by such details, but the coins ask us about our own commitment to acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God. Are we prepared to be like Jesus and to stand up and say that exploitation is wrong? Are we prepared to make a fuss, to cause trouble, if necessary? Are we prepared to follow Jesus, or do we shy away?
The next coins are the coins of loyalty. The enemies of Jesus are worried by his arrival in Jerusalem and his popularity with the crowds, so they try to corner him, to get him to say something that will either make him unpopular with the people or will cause him to be in trouble with the authorities. They use flattering words in an attempt to deceive Jesus and then say, in Saint Matthew Chapter 22 Verse 17, “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” How does Jesus answer? If he says “yes” to taxes, he will be unpopular, if he says “no”, he will be seen to be inciting disobedience. Jesus realizes their duplicity and asks for a coin in Verse 19, “Show me the coin used for the tax”, he tells them, “And they brought him a denarius.” Jesus asks them about the image and the inscription on the coin and many people will know well the answer he gives his questioners, as it appears in the King James Version of the Bible, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”
In the centuries since Jesus spoke those words, Christians have often remembered only half of what Jesus has said, rendering unto Caesar has been our watchword, obeying the authorities, paying our taxes, being good citizens. The coin for paying the tax has been a symbol for worldly loyalty, but not a symbol for giving God his due. What sort of faith have we if our loyalty to God is not comparable with our loyalty to our country? Do we give God his due, render to him the things that are his? If were asked what we had given to God, how would we reply? What loyalty do we show with our coins?
The coins in the story ask us about principle; they ask us about loyalty; and they ask us about our commitment. Jesus has outwitted his opponents and he sits down to rest opposite the Temple treasury, watching people bring their offerings and noting the large sums contributed by the rich. Saint Mark Chapter 12 Verse 42 tells us, “A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny”. The coins given by the widow are an inconsequential amount for the treasury, but Jesus recognizes them as a huge gesture of commitment. We read in Verse 43-44, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
The people in the Temple would have been impressed by the large amounts given by the rich, they would hardly have even noticed the copper coins, they would not have considered the commitment they demanded. If we thought about Jesus watching the giving by pilgrims to the Temple and thought about him applying similar standards to us, how would we feel? If the widow’s coins are a measure of true commitment, then what commitment do we show?
Principle, loyalty, commitment, the fourth coin in the story is a coin of repentance.
Christians have for centuries pondered the motivation of Judas Iscariot in betraying Jesus. Was he just greedy? Was he trying to force Jesus into a corner in the hope that Jesus would show his power? We do not know, what we do know is that the coins Judas was given became a symbol of his repentance for what he had done. We read in Saint Matthew Chapter 27 Verse 3, “When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders.” The coins became not only a symbol of repentance, they became a sound of repentance, Verse 5 says, “Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself”. The sound of coins on a stone floor: a sound of principle on Palm Sunday and a sound of penitence on Good Friday.
What about us? In what ways do we betray Jesus? What do we say that is a betrayal of what we believe? What do we do that betrays any words that we might say? Whatever those purposes may have been, Judas tried to use Jesus for his own purposes; are we like Judas in trying to use Jesus for what we want? The coin became a symbol of the repentance of Judas, what is there that shows our regret for our failures?
Coins of principle, loyalty, commitment, and repentance: the coins in the story are a challenge to us.