Friday, June 8, 2012

Render To Caesar: A most sadly misunderstood text. June 6, 2012

Jesus did not teach the peasant oppressed Jewish people that they should pay Roman tax no matter how abusive and inhumane the Romans were treating them. In fact it was this very issue, of Jesus himself refusing to pay 'tribute' and honor to Caesar instead of God, that resulted in Jesus' arrest and crucifixion. When Jesus finally entered Jerusalem, a place he had avoided until the last days of his life, he was  making his full protest statement against the powers that were crushing the humanity of the common people of Israel. Jesus' protest was against both the Roman government and the Jerusalem religious elite who had colluded in a tax system that robbed the common people, leaving them in poverty. It was this final embodied statement that showed Jesus to be an insurrection threat to the Roman government and to the Jerusalem religious hierarchy.
Roman Coin With Emperor's Inscription

But someone at this point will say, “Didn't Jesus say to give to Caesar what was Caesar's and to God what is God's ?” And does that not mean that we should always obey the civil rule over us no mater how it is crushing the ordinary person? Jesus did say these very words as recorded in Mark 12:13-17 but they have been misunderstood and thus misapplied for insisting that Christians are to submit to dictatorial and immoral civil authorities over themselves or other people.

These famous words are from the author of Mark as he creates his Gospel story. The story of the 'Roman Coin' comes when Mark has Jesus fully arrived in the heart of Jerusalem and the tension is now high between him and his colluding Roman and  ruling  Jewish  adversaries. They are seeing clearly that Jesus is not this 'non threat' who always teaches his followers to obey their overbearing treacherous civil and religious law. Yet they knew they had to make him appear, to his peasant followers, to be as much a trouble maker and reprobate as they believed he was. They knew if his many followers saw him as one standing up for  them against the power brokers they would indeed start an all out civil/religious/political  rebellion. So Mark pictures these authorities time and again showing up and trying to entrap Jesus, usually by asking loaded questions.

Here is where the gospels show Jesus as the master teacher and also what were the issues of his heart which drove his words, actions and ministry. He always refuses to give them the simple answer they seek. He is always shown as  finding a way out of the double-bind they have set and turns it into a problem for them. He does this time and again as he enters ever more deeply into his struggle with the authorities and into the very center of  civil/religious/political power of his day-Jerusalem. His living embodied message and his speaking truth to power was clearly showing to his followers then, and hopefully now, his central mission and heart. His mission and message were regarding the moral and political issues of his day: The abuse and injustice of irresponsible government and religious oppression of people was to Jesus an abomination to God and all humanity. His  timely open rebellion against this oppression is what led to his finally being arrested, convicted and crucified. Sadly, this central meaning of the gospel's  Story of Jesus seems to be all but lost in much conventional interpretation over the centuries.( In respect to past centuries of Christianity I would note we have more information and Biblical scholarship than they had. Along with that growing knowledge about the Bible and Bible times also comes greater responsibility in getting the true heart of the  story of Jesus more correctly understood.)
Roman Oppressive Taxes Left Jewish People In Poverty.

Back to the Coin Story and its context and purpose in Mark's narrative. This story's purpose was surely not to pass on the conventional and mundane admonition that, “We live in two worlds, the spiritual and the secular, we should give both worlds equal respect and tribute,eg give to Caesar(even if unjust and inhumane) what is his and to God what is God's.” This literal, 'common sense', conventional interpenetration that separates religious meaning from political and real-life human situations has been used throughout the centuries to coerce Christ admirers into submitting to oppressive religious and civil authorities, whether over themselves or others. It has been used in American history to convince people that non-violent civil disobedience is always wrong and against the teachings of Jesus. That Christians are basically to never stand up against the injustices and oppressions that happen, to them or others, in the politics and religion of real life. Such an interpretation stands against the whole point of Mark's gospel as I have viewed it above and certainly against what Mark is teaching in the 'Roman Coin' incident which I will describe below.

Jesus' powerful adversaries came again with an entrapping question: 'Do you teach that 'tribute' or taxes should be paid to Caesar?” They reasoned that if he said simply ' yes' he would be telling  crowd that they should never rebel against or resist the oppression these same power authorities were exposing them and their families to. That would defeat the very thing Jesus was in Jerusalem to demonstrate for all people, both friend and foe. If he said 'no' then he was seen as an outright anarchist against Rome and the local Jewish leaders. That would justify the authorities arresting and shutting him down before he had fully made his embodied statement for which he was willing to die. That statement can be heard as: ' The Jewish common folks owe God everything and they owe this despotic and oppressive Roman government and religion nothing until they both begin to measure out justice instead of oppression and discrimination.' Jesus, as usual, does not give them a simple 'yes, no' answer. He does not fall for their over-simplified ,strong-headed vision of complicated situations regarding justice and truth. This model can be a  valid and continuous challenge for any serious admirer of Jesus and searcher of truth and justice today.

Instead he asks his accusers to give him a Denarius Coin(a Roman coin worth a common day's wage) They hand him theirs and he holds it up to the whole crowd to see. He asks the questioning authorities, “Whose image in on the coin?” The image of Caesar on it. So they reply, 'Caesar's image.' Then Jesus said to his accusers, implying it to be most obvious, (Then you) 'give to Caesar what is Caesars.'  And likely after a long pause and turning  to the crowd he adds, (And you)" give to God what is God's."  This amazingly crafted interaction has been conventionally  interpreted as a long about  way for Jesus to say,  'Yes, always pay your taxes just as long as you also give something to God.' And so our inherited conventional , but now very unenlightened, interpretation is, 'Good Christians should pay their taxes- even when despotic, inhumane and life destroying- to the Civil authority.'

But make no mistake,  those wanting to hear Jesus that day heard the opposite. Here is the information needed to understand what has happened in Mark's story. The Hebrew people we now know, thanks to good archeology and Biblical scholarship, were allowed to have the Roman Denarius Coin without the picture of Caesar on it. Devout Jews would not use the Roman Denarius, especially in their temple worship, for they considered it a desecration and betrayal of God. This is why the gospels speak of there being 'money changers' in the Temple grounds so  Jewish people could exchange their 'Caesar Denarius' coins into Roman approved coins of the same value without the inscription of Caesar. This was one of the ways that Rome made a show that they offered the lowly Jews some religious respect. Since the Hebrew Torah forbids worship or 'tribute' to be given to anyone but their one God Yahweh, they were allowed to have the 'non-Caesar' in-scripted coins. Jesus' adversaries had likely forgotten this since in had no impact on their secure lives. So when Jesus' adversaries showed Jesus  a 'Caesar' coin they were emphasizing, to the crowd, without realizing it  that they were Caesar worshipers. And the crowd 'heard' Jesus telling his adversaries, “If this Caesar is your lord than give him everything he asks of you.” But all the oppressed Jews in the crowd knew that the Denarius they honored did not have Caesar on it. At this very moment Jesus' adversaries' attempt to entrap him was foiled. Their efforts to separate the crowd's affection for Jesus had done just the exact opposite. So the oppressed crowd would get it when Jesus added,"( But you) Give to God what is  God's." Which of course is everything for the devout Jew.  That made it clear that Caesar was indeed not their Lord(That they need not live in their mind in two world's, Rome's and God's, to whom they owed some kind of balanced loyalty.) And so unless the taxes levied were just, not life destroying to individuals and families, and not inhumanly oppressive they were required religiously to give 'nothing' to Caesar.

So Jesus, and the gospel's author, masterfully is able to make his point: 'It is right and necessary, though often life threatening, at times to stand firmly against established civil and religious authority.' And  in fact that is exactly why he was now three days from being crucified for that very kind of 'subversive' activity. Surely  Mark's story of the “Roman Coin' has immense challenge and application in the every day life and world view of any admirer of Jesus.

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