Friday, January 14, 2011

Render unto Caesar: Jesus and Rome

Now I want to talk about Jesus' relationship with Rome, the ruling power of the day. You will note in the introduction that I didn't talk about the "religious powers and the secular powers" but rather about the Roman and Jewish powers.  There is good reason for this.  Back in the Roman empire there was no such thing as separation of church and state.  Religion was integrated into the public sphere in a variety of ways, politics included.  For this reason, you had what may be called the "state cults", deities sponsored by the ruling powers that the people were compelled to worship.  This included the emperor himself as one of the gods.

A little OT history will show how this relates to Jesus, who's life was steeped in OT culture.  The book of Daniel shows very clearly that Kings can have a tendency to force worship from their subjects, a book which Jesus often relates to himself (see Daniel Chapter 3).  It is possible that this relation is partially due to the similarity in situation between his time and the time of Daniel.  The OT furthermore unequivocally equates having a king with false worship.  1 Samuel 8 is really interesting in this regard, especially ver. 6-9.  Compare what is said there to John 19:15 where the crowds scream, "We have no King but Caesar", clearly inferring more than simply an earthly ruler.  To stand against emperor worship cannot be viewed as simply a religious stand, but a political stand as well.  We see later christians being persecuted, not because they worshipped Jesus, but because they worshipped ONLY Jesus.  They wouldn't acknowledge the perceived rightful place of the emperor among the gods.

So there are some background reasons to think that Jesus had a problem with Roman occupation, but the question remains as to whether there are any passages that demonstrate that he felt that way.  For that, I want to unpack the incident of the imperial tax, Mark 12:13-17.

"Later they sent some of the Pharisees and the Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words."

So here is the set up.  A few things of note pop out at me, and I want to try to look at this in the context and time that it was written, remembering the Jewish culture of the people involved, and the hardship that comes from the foreign occupation of the land and the heavy associated taxes, on top of the tithes and temple taxes they are paying. 

Some men come up to Jesus while he is teaching.  We know who the Pharisees are, but the Herodians we are less certain about, as they don't come up as often.  Probably they are either king Herod's men, or else Jewish people sympathetic to the Roman occupation.  These people come expressly for the purpose of catching him in his words.  They want to trick him, make him say something to either bring a charge against him or else make him lose face in sight of his followers.

  "They came to him and said, 'Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity.  You arent swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.  Is it right to pay the imperial tax or not?  Should we pay or shouldn't we?'"

Here is the question.  The picture becomes clearer.  The flattery ensures that he must answer the question, lest he lose his integrity.  It is a challenge to his teaching, and to his truthfulness.  Will you stand up for what you know is right, and go against the Romans, or will you bow to authority and lay a burdon on your people that they cannot handle?  This is the trap they have set for him.  The people are struggling under these taxes, and to pay them is making it hard to survive.  If Jesus says "go ahead and pay the taxes" then he is going against what he knows is right and giving in.  The Pharisees and Herodians know this, or else why would this have been the question with which to trick him?

On the other hand, if he says "don't pay your taxes, the Romans aren't legitimate kings here" then he would be arrested on the spot, which is what the Pharisees would have loved to have happen.  Jesus is in a tight spot here.  Does he give in, or does he make a stand for justice, most likely ending his ministry then and there?

"But Jesus knew their hypocrisy."

This goes deeper than just his knowledge of their trickery.  The entire crowd was aware of the trap they had set, it was no hypocrisy just to set a trap.  There was something inherent in the question itself, being asked by the Jewish leaders, that he was to expose in his answer.  Not only did he know of their intent, he also knew that they knew what was right, and were going against their own teachings.

Often when Jesus is teaching, he demonstrates his lesson by bringing what the people already believe into the light, exposing the hypocrisies of the people who are trying to trick him.  You can see this with his teaching about healing on the Sabbath, as well as when the Pharisees ask by who's authority he does his works.  In these cases he shows that those condemning him are groundless in their accusations, they cannot push the issue without exposing themselves as frauds.  This is the method Jesus will use in the answer to their question.

"'Why are you trying to trap me?' He asked."

Jesus exposes them by getting behind their empty flattery to the root of their plot, not allowing them the pretense of an honest question.

"'Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.'"

Jesus doesn't have a denarius of his own, so he has to ask that one be brought to him.  This is interesting to note.

"They brought the coin, and he asked them, 'Who's image is this? And who's inscription?'
'Caesars' They replied."

Jesus here is forcing the Pharisees and Herodians to acknowledge their hypocrisy.  There is no hint that his point is to show a separation of church and state, but more likely a reference to the second commandment (See exodus 20:4).  In having them recall who's image is on the coin, they are admitting to the crowds that they are worshiping a false god, that even the money they use is an idol to the state cult.  This is the reason that Jesus doesn't use the state money, because just to carry it would be blasphemous, and to use it is to accept that the Romans have the right to rule the land of the Jews.

"Then Jesus said to them, 'Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's.' And they were amazed by him."

Finally we come to the end, where Jesus answers the question.  He does leave it ambiguous, but by this point the crowds will know what he means.  "Caesar can keep his blasphemous coins, but he is a pretender on God's throne and has no right to our allegiance or respect.  The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it (Psalm 24) so give everything to God, for he is our true Ruler."

In conclusion, Jesus was against the rule that the Romans exercised over God's people.   They were placing burdens on the poor that they couldn't support, and taking God's rightful place in society.

Next time we will talk about Jesus' relationship to the Jewish leaders of the time.

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