Monday, October 17, 2011

It's One or the Other: Caesar or God.

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “Caesar's.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to Caesar the things that are the Caesar's, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Matthew 22:15-22

The work of many recent biblical scholars (ie, Marcus Borg, Ched Myers, John Howard Yoder & N.T. Wright...among many others) has testified that this week's gospel passage has been perhaps one of the most misinterpreted biblical episodes in Christian history...with disastrous results. It has justified unquestioning autocratic rule (including Nazi Germany) and was quoted widely by opponents of the American Civil Rights Movement in the 50s and 60s. "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's" has been widely used to quarantine life into two different realms of existence, completely separate from each other: politics and religion. Church and State are on two distinct planes, never to intersect or interact with each other.

This interpretation has Jesus encouraging followers to do one thing politically and one thing religiously. It assumes that Jesus' campaign was not about gritty social, political and economic realities, but simply about changing the heart so that individuals can go to heaven when they die. Seen this way, Jesus' response to the coalition of Pharisees and Herodians is used to baptize the power and legitimacy of both political leaders and pastors respectively. This is exemplified most crudely in the Stanley Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket when Gunnery Sargeant Hartman screams at his boot camp soldiers after they sing "Happy Birthday" to Jesus on Christmas: "You can give your hearts to Jesus, but your ass belongs to the Marine Corps."

However, this apolitical charicature of Jesus falls flat on the ears of biblical scholars who, as N.T. Wright has put it, have learned more about 1st century Palestinian Judaism in the last 50 years than in the first 1950 years combined. Jesus would have never considered dividing life into "political" and "religious" categories. Jesus, instead, creatively indicted the Pharisees & Herodians who symbolically sold out by carrying a Roman denarius with Caesar's "image" above the words "Caesar Son of the Divine" inscribed on it.

This was the 1st century scandal because, for a faithful Jew, Caesar was not God nor an anointed Messiah ("son of God"), but instead a human being stamped with the "image of God" (Genesis 1) who created everyone and everything. As it turns out, in the the 1st century (just like the 21st), God and Caesar were not located in different categories, but on the same playing field ("the confrontation of two regimes"--John Howard Yoder), competing for the hearts and minds of everyone. One couldn't possibly pledge allegiance to both Caesar and the God of the Hebrews.

Enter Jesus, who inclusively extended "peace" and "salvation" to the world through his followers who called him (and not Caesar) "Lord" and "Savior." Caesar brought peace to the world through fear, violence and intimidation. He coerced loyalty and devotion from citizens and all those on the outer fringe of the Empire. Those rebels and vagabonds who refused were given the ultimate death penalty: crucifixion.

When Jesus told his interrogators to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's" the clear implication was that this meant nothing would be rendered to Caesar because God was the One who was reigning, beckoning the whole world (even Gentiles, prostitutes, lepers, tax collectors and zealots) to join in the loving, serving, compassionate healing of the cosmos (what Jews beautifully call tikkun olam).

In today's climate, "render unto caesar" is often used (by pastors and political leaders alike) as a timeless truth to convince faithful Christians to obey the policies of the government ("the things of Caesar")--no matter how unjust--while at the same time to commit themselves to prayer, Bible study and following the preaching of the pastor-hero ("the things of God"). This counterfeit rendering desperately needs to be reclaimed by followers of Jesus who was brutally silenced, tortured and murdered by Caesar.

Today, Caesar (all those who idolatrously wield power through politics and/or the purse) continues to silence, torture and murder in the name of "national security" and "economic growth." Today, God continues to be devoted to sacrificial love and service, calling anyone with the courage and conviction to join the Prophetic Task of criticizing the powerful while energizing the disinherited of the earth. Today, we have an opportunity to take personal inventory: what are we rendering to Caesar...and what are we rendering to God.

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