I recently came across an article by Antonine DeGuglielmo titled, “The Religious Life of the Jews in the Light of their Coins.” The article surveys recent studies in archeology and numismatology (the study of coins) to determine how ancient Jewish coins reflect the religious beliefs and practices of the Jews. As I read this article, two things in particular caught my attention.
First, DeGuglielmo begins by mentioning a limiting factor regarding the interpretation of coins. He states, “With coins, one deals with objects that are entirely official in character… [O]ne must bear in mind that in striking coins the authorities may have wished to spread their own views on a particular subject. Of their very nature coins represent an official attitude.” In other words, since the authorities were in control of producing the currency, they could promote whatever images or attitudes they desired. It would not be hard to imagine the authoritative leaders abusing this control to spread their own political agendas, such as the silver Roman denarius hailing Tiberius Caesar as the “son of the divine Augustus.”
Second, in light of the information above, it is noteworthy that many ancient Jewish coins depict religious images. For example, DeGuglielmo describes coins that portray the lulab and the ethrog, both of which belong to the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, in addition to the menorah. He goes on to describe several other motifs possibly present on Jewish currency: the Temple or a synagogue, the Ark of the Covenant, the table of shewbread and the screen of the tabernacle. The use of these liturgical images on the Jewish coins show us what the Jewish authorities considered important and the values they sought to promote among the common people. Instead of trying to build up their own political leaders, they used their currency to remind people about their liturgies and worship of God.
As I read this article, I could not help but reflect on the readings from this last Sunday. In particular, one statement Jesus made stood out among the rest. In Mt 6:24 he states, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” In light of this passage and DeGuglielmo’s article, I began reflecting on our own U.S. currency. Most of our coins and bills prominently display the phrase “In God We Trust.” The U.S. Department of Treasury provides the history behind this phrase here.
Even though this phrase appears on our money, I have to wonder if it is really true. Taking DeGuglielmo’s first point into consideration, if a historian two-thousand years from now stumbled across a 2014 U.S. Quarter, would he or she come to the conclusion that our society must have been highly religious? Would he or she claim that our government placed its trust in God and not money since the government produced currency with this phrase? Would he or she be correct?
Applying this to the individual level, do we even notice this phrase anymore (for those of us who carry cash, at least)? Do we allow this phrase to remind us that we serve God and not mammon? Most of us are anxious about our financial matters and find ourselves serving money and placing our entire trust in material wealth. It is a bit ironic that the very thing we are tempted to serve in place of God actually tells us to place our trust in God. For many people, as the Lynch v. Donnelly case of 1984 claims, this phrase has “lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”
 Antonine DeGuglielmo, “The Religious Life of the Jews in the Light of their Coins,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 16 (1984), 171.
 Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, The Gospel of Matthew, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 285.
 DeGuglielmo, “Religious Life of the Jews,” 186-7.
465 U. S. 716