Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tuesday's Coin


Mark 12:13 Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. 14And they came and said to him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? 15Should we pay them, or should we not?’ But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.’ 16And they brought one. Then he said to them, ‘Whose image [ikon] is this, and whose inscription [epigraphe]?’ They answered, ‘Caesar’s.’ 17Jesus said to them, ‘Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were utterly amazed at him.

Q: How does this Gospel episode, on Tuesday just days before his crucifixion, function as authoritative for us today?
A: 2 Options:

1.) We should place the priority on what historically actually happened in 30AD. What did Jesus' audience hear him say, what did that mean and how did they respond? The answers give us principles, or truths, for what is important and how we might then follow today, like a manual or encyclopedia.

2.) We should place the priority on how the author of the Gospel of Mark literarily shaped his story about Jesus for his community of Christ-followers around 70AD. What is Mark claiming about what it means to follow Jesus based on the whole narrative (about the length of a short movie)? How would this messianic community, convinced of Jesus' ongoing presence 40 years after the death/resurrection, identify with the story and actually participate in it, like a script.

EasYolk's biblical reading strategy is represented by option #2. We yearn for a movement of people who find biblical authority in its ability to script us into passionate participation with the personal, social, political and economic challenges of our day. We, too, are convinced that Jesus continues to be present with us as we imaginatively find ourselves inside the story, creatively finding connections with our own reality.

As such, we humbly and critically study the text, groping for historical and literary aids that bring the text alive and light a fire in our hearts as they burn in our journey with Jesus (Luke 24:32).

In Mark 11:13-17, a small snippet of his final, pre-crucifixion Tuesday (115 verses in Mark!), Jesus is confronted by an unlikely coalition of Jewish groups that rarely found common ground. Their desire to "destroy" Jesus goes all the way back to Mark 3:6, creating deep tension in a "competition of kingdoms:" God versus Caesar [Mark 1:14-15]. N.T. Wright helpfully describes the context, "If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not."

The interpretation of this passage has been heavily influenced by Augustinian and Lutheran notions of dividing our world into two "cities" or "kingdoms": the spiritual and the political/economic/social. Today, this passage is cited by both pastors and politicians to urge obedience to the government, while seeking a spiritual and future salvation through the church. As Gunnery Sargeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket says, "You can give your heart to Jesus, but your ass belongs to the Marine Corp."

However, through the Dead Sea scroll findings and other scholarship, we have learned more in the past 5 decades about what Jesus' culture was like than we knew in the previous 1950 years combined. Here's the language of a more compelling, scholarly interpretation from Kairos Europa, a European network of ecumenical initiatives and groups, working for a Europe for justice:

This is the catch-question that is posed to Jesus. What
does he say?

1. I have absolutely nothing to do with this Roman
money (”bring me a coin and let me see it“).

2. It bears the image of the emperor, who allows himself
to be venerated as a god on it - that is idolatry.

3. Therefore, give the emperor this idolatrous money
back, i.e., have nothing to do with it.

4. You, though, that bear the image of God, give yourselves
back to God completely.


When Mark's story, from start to finish, is read as a critique of both Jewish and Roman claims to power, then this coin episode can be more clearly understood as just one more event in a gripping narrative about what or who really is on the throne, ruling over the entire known world. Jesus' questions about "image" and 'inscription' should be read in light of the wider echoes of Scripture ('So God created humankind in his image'...Genesis 1:27) and striving towards the awfully beautiful conclusion of Mark's story of Jesus on the cross ('The inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews’...Mark 15:26) as confessed by, of all people(!), the Roman soldier ('the son of God'...15:39). God's image is stamped on all humankind (even Caesar!) and Jesus is the true "king of the Jews" (not Herod) and "son of God" (not Caesar).

With this boldly communicated, Jesus leaves his hearers 40 years after his death/resurrection with this proclamation: "Give to Caesar what belongs to him and give to God what belongs to him." Jesus continues to extend this challenge to us today: who or what is our ultimate allegiance and how might that cost us everything?

--Theological Autopilot

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