Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Coin Flip


Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And 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? Should 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.’ And they brought one. Then he said to them, ‘Whose image [ikon] is this, and whose inscription [epigraphe]?’ They answered, ‘Caesar’s.’ Jesus 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.
Mark 12:13

Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of leaders…and millions have been killed because of this obedience…Our problem is that people are obedient allover the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty.
Howard Zinn

During this Holy Week, and the rest of the year, 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. Just like the original disciples in the Gospel narratives, we, too, are convinced that Jesus continues to be present with us as we imaginatively find ourselves as real-life characters inside the story, creatively finding connections with our own reality.

As such, we humbly and critically study each Gospel episode, 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 polarizing 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." This, essentially, retains power for both pastor and political leader, respectively. It's a convenient coaltion.

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, the Gospel of Mark leaves her hearers 40 years after Jesus' 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?

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