The strategy was simple: a mixed group of Herodians and Pharisees surrounded Jesus and and among them was an agitator who presented Jesus with a question, “Tell us…what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” This was a calculated move on the part of the Pharisees (the group orchestrating the public ambush). Jesus was cornered by people with differing allegiances and strongly held opinions, and he was sure to anger one group or the other with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’ The problem was urban/national politics. Everything was fine in rural Galilee, where a few healings made all the difference, and a couple agriculturally themed parables resonated with the locals. But here in Jerusalem, under the shadow of the Roman dominated Temple, any so called Rabi was going to have to answer the big questions of national concern.
It was in 63 B.C.E. when Rome took control of the Jewish homeland and established an imperial system of domination complete with client kings and oppressive taxes. The domination system benefited the elites who created it—of course it did. Noted New Testament scholar Marcus Borg gives us the economic ramifications: Wealth in the ancient world came primarily from farms. Through a combination of taxation and ownership of farm land, the Roman and native elites of the first century extracted about two-thirds of agricultural production. The farmers who produced it (90% of the population) got the remaining one-third, leaving them with a subsistence (or worse) level of existence. In other words the very few became wealthy off the work of the very many.
The revolutionists of the ancient Jewish world, the zealots we call them, the ones wearing the “we are the 90 percent” t-shirts in Jerusalem’s city parks, were not just bloodthirsty, messianic, nationalists. They were after a measure of economic justice, and they, for the most part, were on their own. They had given up on the Temple for help. Rome was smart enough to buy off the religious establishment. The temple authorities and their retainers, from the ruling Sadducee sect, collaborated with Roman rule and endorsed Roman taxation. So the Jews were divided: the poor young revolutionaries who wanted more for their future, and the entrenched Jewish aristocracy who had found ways of profiting from the system. For Jesus’ detractors the troublesome divide presented a golden opportunity–surround the ‘would be’ messiah with those on the right and the left, ask one question, and thrust the proclaimed son of God into the heart of a national controversy. The opinionated crowds will do the rest. This was good political maneuvering—split the base, cause dissension, divide and conquer!
A similar strategy could be applied today. Just look around you—things are not so different. I still see Herodians and Pharisees and a gawking crowd. All we need is one agitator to stand up and make a scene? Anyone? It’s easy, let me help—here is what the agitator should say:
“Jesse, teacher, we know that you are sincere [they always begin with flattery], and teach the way of God in accordance with your seminary training and thus speak truth in all its various forms, and show deference to no one; but are equal opportunity, and are not partisan, and not affected by soft money, and are not borrowing from the pockets of special interests, and are no boards at any corporation, and are not part of any union.”
See how good the agitator is at this. All I can do is blush, and nod my head. The agitator is quite right about me. Here, let me hold on to my lapels and give my best ‘strong, confident, and clever’ look while the agitator says a few more kind things. It will make for a nice photo-op that I can throw up on my blog, send as a twit pic, and use as a facebook profile. I will leave it up to you to post a comment, or hit the ‘like’ button, or to re-tweet. With your help my circle of influence can grow and grow.
But the agitator doesn’t want that, and they are not done. That flattering lead up was their way of controlling my steps, and leading me right to the precipice of danger. Now that I am teetering on the edge, the agitator gleefully gives me a shove:
“Tell us, then, what you think. [The gawking crowd is well tuned in now.] It is right to occupy Wall Street, or not?”
How brilliant!— cornered by people with differing allegiances and strong opinions (I trust I have an eclectic group of readers), sure to anger one group or the other with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’ This is good political maneuvering—split the base, cause dissension, divide and conquer!
This is where a good pollster would come in handy. I wonder what the split on my readers would be? 30/70? 40/60? For? Against? And I would need to know other things. If the readers were 40/60 I would certainly want to know the demographic break down. After all if most of the marbles was held by the forty what good it is to go with the 60? Siding with the majority is not always the safest course of action. Of course this might be an issue I choose to become a martyr on so that I attain status as a ‘poster boy’ for the disenfranchised, then I become adorable, like a milk lapping kitten, or a snoring baby hamster—you do have to work on your brand!
I hate politics. I really, really do. I bet Jesus hated politics too. But I know they are necessary, and Jesus knew this, even though he was an apocalyptic prophet proclaiming a coming kingdom that transcended and put an end to all earthy authorities, and economic inequalities. You still have to live in the middle space—the time between. You still have to decide if it’s lawful to pay taxes to the emperor. You point toward the kingdom, and with your actions you suggest what the kingdom will be like. But you do it all within the framework and structure of the present, where we have to organize ourselves into meaningful groups of accountability, and order, and pay taxes, and set up corporations (some of which become quite large), and offer protest when needed.
The agitator is still not impressed. I’m bloviating, dodging, beating around the bush. The agitator wants an answer.
Jesus’ responds by asking for a coin. They bring him a denarius.
“Whose head is this, and whose title?”
There were actually a few different coins serving as the denarius in those days, bearing a portrait of the emperor some read, “Tiberius, Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, the high priest,” others read, “Tiberius, Caesar, The majestic son of God, the high priest”—both were lofty bits of political propaganda. They were highly offensive to the principled Hebrew, who saw violation of the Torah in both the portrait and the inscription. But what could you do?—you couldn’t pay your taxes in goat’s milk, or chicken eggs! Ah, but you could use an unmarked coin. Out of respect for Jewish law, coins minted by Herod the Great and his son Herod Antipas did not bear an image of Caesar, or any other kind of graven image. Many devout Jews only used these faceless pieces of currency. Thus, by eliciting from his opponents a coin with a graven image, Jesus discredited those that came to him. The very possession of the coin meant they were compromised. When the Pharisees fished around in their pockets, extracted a coin, and handed it over, they lost all traction with the gawking crowd. Further, since Jesus had to ask for a coin, that meant he must not have any of his own. Even in Caesar’s world Jesus had avoided carrying tribute to Caesar around in his pocket. Could it be that Jerusalem had found a politician without a denarius of soft money clanging around in his tunic? Suddenly, the ambushers were ambushed.
Whose head and whose title? They swallowed hard and replied, “The emperor’s.”
“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s”
Do you know what this means? Maybe that’s the brilliance of Jesus—it’s hard knowing exactly what he means. Did Jesus tell his country-folk to pay their taxes? I don’t know, and scholars are divided as well. It could be that he literally means give the emperor back the coins that bear his image—so yes, pay your tax. But every good Jew knew that nothing really belonged to the emperor and everything belonged to God. Therefore the emperor’s claim on coins, especially coins that claimed him divine, was worthless and empty—so no, don’t pay your tax. Isn’t it ironic that when you come to Jesus with an agenda, looking for an answer you already know, he gives you something you can’t make ‘heads or tails’ of! What did he mean? We suspect that even in Jesus’ day people were not entirely sure about what Jesus meant, for later Paul will have to take up the issue of paying taxes to Rome once again. I’m sure there were some in that crowd who supported Roman taxation who walked away very happy, and there were some in that crowd that vowed never to send Rome another cent who walked away just as happy. I admire that political ability—bravo! Now if only I had something clever to say to get past my agitator.
Of course I imagine there was a third group too. In this third group were some who supported Roman taxation, and some who slept in tents in the city parks. No one from this group walked away happy. Instead they nervously played with coins in their pockets. This was the group that had ears to hear, who were not so blinded by their partisan and ideological understanding of the world that they failed to be challenged by the sage from Galilee. These are the ones who did not immediately assign meaning to the words of Jesus, and then walk away happy with their own positions affirmed—which we are all so quick to do. Instead our third group let the statement of Jesus do its forming work on their heart and minds. They stood in the crowd, with sweat on their brow, and thought hard, with a clean slate: What does belong to God, and what does belong to the emperor?
Do you want to know truth? Good.
“Tell us, then, what you think. It is right to occupy Wall Street, or not?”
The truth is we all compromise—so be careful who you back into a corner with your political traps and your endless strategies. No matter what the answer, there will always be three groups. Don’t come to Jesus with full pockets and ask questions for which you already know the answers. Bow at the cross in humility, look at the face of suffering, and see what happens to the son of God when he disappoints the state, and when he disappoints our theology. See what happens when everyone’s ears are shut.
“Tell us, then, what you think. It is right to occupy Wall Street, or not? Is it right to blame big business in your online blog that you post with your apple computer? Is it right for so much wealth to be held by so few? Are we really, in this country, going to vilify civil disobedience? Is leaderless civil disobedience misguided?”
Stop agitating me! Here’s my answer. If you are believing reader then you have faith in the coming kingdom of God. And you believe that we are sign of that kingdom. You believe that in our Christian communities we witness for the kingdom to the world and we pray for its coming. We pray that what is done in heaven is done on earth. So what do you think that is? You’ve heard the kingdom parables. What do you think the kingdom is like? When you figure it out, then the solution is this: give to that kingdom what belongs that kingdom. In this ‘in between’ time use your life to make happen here on earth what happens in heaven. Let yourself be challenged. Don’t come to Jesus with a strategy. Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor. And be prepared to swallow hard when Jesus asks you to empty your pockets and give him a coin. And be ready to pray in our mixed communities of Herodians and Pharisees, the prayer that Jesus taught us: ‘Our father in heaven, hallowed by thy name, they kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’