This is a brilliant guest post from my friend Tim Gavigan. You can read more of his thoughts here.
I wonder if Jesus kept track of the number of times people tried to kill him.
When the Pharisees and supporters of King Herod took their shot, it was round two in a battle of questions between Jesus and the Jerusalem leadership. Jesus had inflicted heavy damages. The question on the table: should we pay taxes to Caesar, or shouldn’t we?
Understand that the 1st Century Jewish world swam in the question, “What are we to do about Rome?” A fair enough question, as God had chosen the Hebrews (see, for example, Deut 26:19) to be His prize people, the nation through which He would demonstrate His loving provision, unlimited power, and wise rule. Essentially, Israel was to rule the world on God’s behalf, and through Israel God would bring the world to Himself as Israel faithfully displayed His character.
No one in the 1st Century would have argued that Israel had been ruling the world on God’s behalf anytime in recent memory, if ever. Quite on the contrary, foreign empires had ruled over the holy land for the previous 600 years, with a brief, 100-year period of independence that Rome terminated in 63 BCE. Naturally, the conquering emperors had little regard for either Israel’s divinely appointed vocation, or the Jew’s supposed, speaking Deity.
“What are we to do about Rome?” Essentially, the Jews could be divided into two camps. 1) Revolt. Rise up and throw off these pagan oppressors. There were more and less theological versions of this solution, but the end goal was the same: fight and destroy Rome. 2) Do the math… as in, count the number of Roman soldiers, and acknowledge that their Near-East contingent alone outnumbers the whole of the Jews. There were more and less theological versions of this solution as well, but the strategy was the same: survive through compromise with Rome.
“Should we pay taxes to Caesar, or shouldn’t we?” was really a coded way of saying, “Hey Jesus, do you think we should revolt or not?” Whoever receives taxes is in charge. Jewish taxes paid for Rome’s army, to protect them from invaders. Those payments also ensured Rome’s continued goodwill, expressed in not using that army against Judea. (For a point of reference on just how bound together were the issue of coins and Jewish independence: one of the first things the Israelites did when they launched the ill-fated revolt of 66-70AM was to mint coins.)
“Whose image is this?” and “whose inscription?” Jesus asked, after requesting a coin from them. Jesus had them at “image” (think: graven image.) A Roman denarius sported a likeness of the Emperor Tiberius, the words “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus” running along the coin’s edge. Doubly blasphemous. The scene drips with irony: here stands the true Son of the true God in the flesh, while those who claim to serve that God hold what amounts to an idol. Round two: Jesus.
But He didn’t stop there…
… despite the fact that the Pharisees and Herodians had asked an impossible question. They were enemies, after all, having come for the express purpose of trapping him. Further, neither group was particularly friendly with the officials who had initiated this deceptive mission (the chief priests and the scribes.) The principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” effectively united everyone with any influence against Jesus, all the way on up to Pilate and Herod. In order to make sense of this, you have to take a step back and see the question that had ignited Jesus’ battle with the Jerusalem authorities.
Jesus had just entered into Jerusalem, in the event commonly referred to as the triumphal entry. It was Passover weekend, a time explosive with nationalistic hopes, as Israel commemorated its exodus from – and unlikely triumph over – the most powerful nation on the earth to that point: Egypt. A huge crowd had welcomed Jesus into the city with a king’s reception. But he had kicked off his enthronement celebration with a confusing and controversial demonstration in the Temple – the prototypical Occupy event, if you will. This action, which ultimately amounted to a prophetic condemnation of the entire Temple institution, had culminated in the round one challenge to Jesus: “who gave you the authority to do this?” In other words, the question hanging over the entire scene: “are you the Messiah?”
In reality, the Jerusalem leadership had already concluded he was not. He simply didn’t fit their Messiah mold. That he had been doing astounding miracles was not in doubt, but this actually posed a further problem: Rome would respond to a popular uprising swiftly and ruthlessly. Since, as they had assumed, Jesus wasn’t the Messiah, that battle could only end in the devastation of Judea.
Their tax question seemed a foolproof means of defusing the whole issue. If Jesus answered “no, don’t pay the tax,” then they could feed him to the Romans as a seditionist. But he could not answer “pay the tax,” because it would, in the people’s eyes, deflate any suggestion that he might be the Messiah.
The failure of the Jerusalem leadership lies in their confusing religious categories with political ones. Their expectations of God’s leader were formed by their pressing political aspirations. The Pharisees cloaked their real motive (armed revolt) in religious conservatism. The Herodians disguised their true desire (to maintain their power, wealth, and status) in the logic of compromise. They prioritized the political question and reduced God to a supporting role in their competing arguments. This goes a long way in explaining why Jesus answered their impossible question with an impossible answer.
“Then give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.”
The first half of this cryptic statement reveals Jesus’ brilliance, simultaneously calling his opponents out on the purpose of their question and besting them in their own game. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” could easily indicate either answer: i.e., “give him the tax – it’s his”; or, “pay him what he deserves for his blasphemous and idolatrous ways – revolt!”
But the forensic genius of the intro pales in contrast to the knock-down for which it serves as setup. “Give to God what belongs to God” only means one thing: total obedience and commitment of one’s whole self to God. It’s no coincidence that the question of what is the greatest command comes right on the heels of this discussion. It’s also no coincidence that Jesus indicates that obedience to this command stands at the very center of the Kingdom of God: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength,” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” All of life is to be submitted to this priority.
Jesus essentially says: “you’re not even asking the right questions! God’s plan isn’t even in the same thought-world as yours! All of your theories are merely two sides of the same coin!” Moments before, Jesus had been telling them a parable about them getting kicked out of the holy land, and here they were asking Jesus about whether they should kick Rome out! As Abraham Joshua Heschel observes, “If you miss God in the question, you will miss Him in the answer.”
I would suggest to you that the church in America suffers from the same loss of perspective. Our ultimate political question, according to every poll, is the economy. You can basically divide Americans – including the church – into supporters of two answers: free market and individual responsibility or collective responsibility with government regulation. Like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day we bring our pet religious convictions in to throw weight behind one political view or the other. How is it that we have come to assume God’s purposes can be reduced to fit into one half of a human political debate, regardless of how we frame that debate in moral terms?
My ways are not your ways, and my thoughts are not your thoughts. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts higher than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:8-9
All of our political arguments are merely two sides of the same coin.
We have to bring it back to the real question: is Jesus Lord? Are we submitting our entire worldview to him or is he merely ammunition in our argument about something that matters more to us (the economy!)? Here are some test questions to determine which is, in reality, the primary concern: How do we apply “defend the foreigner” to our views on immigration policy? Or “plead the cause of the poor, the widow, and the orphan” with regard to domestic policy? Or – my personal favorite – do we think “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you” ought to inform our foreign policy?
Does the path to God’s Kingdom look more like the U.S. Capitol building or the cross? (The only time I see Jesus’ followers in the halls of power in the New Testament is when they have been hauled there to account for their very counter-cultural faith.) Are our politics of power in any way compatible with Jesus’ Kingdom? Or does God yet choose the lowly things of this world to bring to nothing the things that are?
I think we are foolish to conclude that any government is more closely aligned with the rock not cut by human hands than it is to the golden statue of Nebuchadnezzar that it smashes to bits (see Daniel 2). After all, it is not any nation that Ephesians so majestically celebrates as God’s plan to reveal His wisdom to the world, it is the church.
Our coin is useless to God. It isn’t even in God’s thought world. Democrat, Republican: they’re probably mirror images of each other in God’s eyes. God’s plan is cross-shaped, and all of our living in God’s Kingdom on earth must conform to that pattern. John Goldingay puts it this way: ‘Christians often describe their activity as building God’s kingdom, or as designed to further God’s Kingdom or extend God’s kingdom. The New Testament never uses such expressions. The only thing Jesus’ followers do for God’s Kingdom is announce it and suffer for it.’
Paul does speak of building the church. And we ought to settle it in our hearts – to allow ourselves to be consumed by the divine imagination, to internalize God’s grand redemptive narrative in all its dazzling beauty, to let the light of the church shine so brightly that the government be exposed as a the ghastly mirage of hope that it is.
We would do well to take note of historical precedent. When the Jews revolted, they ended up killing more Jews than the Romans did. The result of our current situation will largely be determined by how the church in the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation works out all the implications of the question: is Jesus Lord?