Luke 20.20-26

So they watched him, and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might take hold of what he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor.

They asked him, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God.

“Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?”

But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, “Show me a coin. Whose likeness and inscription has it?”

They said, “Caesar’s.”

He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”

And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him by what he said; but marveling at his answer they were silent.


6 responses

  1. The Talmid Rebbe | Reply

    The language “take hold of what he said, so as to deliver him” intrigues me.

    The Jewish Annotated New Testament says this is interpreted to mean that taxes are legitimate by Christian advocates, and taxes are illegitimate by Christian detractors. I’d say Jesus advocates paying taxes, but isn’t the statement “but he perceived their craftiness…” tantalizing?

    What about things that don’t have Caesar’s name on them?

    My gut tells me there is a very strong anti-idolatry message in here, but I’m still chewing on it. “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” reminds me of Jacob instructing the people to put away from them their idols and wash themselves in water. Dispatch your human duties while dispatching your God’s duties?

    1. I hadn’t seen your comment here; my own take is below. We’re close. But both puzzled, I think.

    2. The Talmid Rebbe | Reply

      This is consistent with religious practice during the Babylonian Captivity, and among those who remained in diaspora after being allowed to return to Israel. When you’re a stranger in a strange land, do you have to compromise to an extent? I don’t think a nation unto itself will be much of a nation for long if it gets itself killed, and won’t garner many followers for going against what the surrounding people consider common sense, no matter how “right” it considers itself to be. I wonder if this is why its ok to violate commandments to preserve life (alluded to in my post about Shabbat and entry into the covenant). But how much is too much? They were still in this situation: in a strange place, can’t sacrifice to God, but can’t sacrifice to idols either. So what did they do? They lived among the strangers in their land, and established the synagogue, in order to get along, but remember who they are.

      Look at it this way: I don’t think they offered prisoners on tax evasion a kosher option.

      The situation here is trickier. We’re strangers in our own land. This makes Jesus’ statement more than channelling Babylonian practice, which would have been part of the community consciousness, more than evasion and more than protest. This makes Jesus’ statement a scathing insult.

      They were stunned into silence.

  2. This is not about “Separation of Church and State.” Neither Jesus nor his contemporaries had any such concept; it doesn’t seem to have existed until the aftermath of Cromwell’s regime in England. Plenty of rivalry went on between secular and clerical powers — but both were theoretically under divine jurisdiction, if mortals knew what was good for them.

    This is, as the text says, an attempt to maneuver Jesus into a fatal political position. The initial flattering set-up works to trap him into answering as a Torah teacher. The Torah is clear: “This land ain’t your land; this land is God’s land.” Certainly nobody owes Caesar rent. If Jesus says this, in line with the stands of some well-known previous revolutionists & rebels — his options narrow to a) immediate armed insurrection or b) capital charges against him from the occupying Romans.

    Asking for the coin diverts the debate away from Torah and himself. As a devout Jew, Jesus certainly wouldn’t be carrying such a blasphemous item. His opponents have to cop to having such a coin themselves, or go to the money-changers for one if they still hope to catch him out. William Herzog, in _Prophet and Teacher_ : “The obverse of the coin contained a profile of Tiberius’s head adorned with a laurel wreath, the sign of divinity, and was inscribed with an epigram that claimed divinity for both Augustus and Tiberius… The reverse side depicted the emperor’s mother, Livia, ‘sitting on the throne of the gods, in her right hand the Olympian scepter, in her left hand the olive branch to symbolize her incarnation as the heavenly Pax, the divine counterpart to the Pax Romana… The enduring presence of the coin made it a familiar symbol of Caesar’s presence and power. It was no ordinary Roman coin. The Roman denarius was a piece of political propaganda that asserted Rome’s right to rule the cosmos…”

    “Who is this guy with his head on this coin?” Herzog again: “Everyone knew what was on the despised coin. It was a blasphemous statement and an idolatrous claim, so the Pharisees and Herodians seek the most innocuous answer possible. They cannot refuse to answer lest they seem to be ashamed of their Roman masters, in which case their role as collaborators could be compromised. So they have to answer the question, however embarrassing it might be to do so and however much it casts them in a negative light….

    “If Jesus was holding the coin, his very act of holding up the coin and playing dumb borders on the sarcastic… Even if he is holding the coin his opponents have produced, Jesus distances himself from it by forcing them to procure it and acknowledge what it proclaims. They have been skewered, but Jesus is still on the spot…”

    His answer may be a very clever evasion. NT Wright says it’s deeper, entirely consistent with everything Jesus has been doing and saying so far. It is likely to have been heard as “Pay back Caesar as he deserves.” Says Wright, “Nobody could deny that the saying was revolutionary… nor could anyone say that Jesus had forbidden payment of the tax. Jesus the Galilean envisaged a different sort of revolution from that of Judas the Galilean. He was not advocating compromise with Rome; nor was he advocating straightforward resistance of the sort that refuses to pay the tax today and sharpens its swords for battle tomorrow.” What we’re getting, Wright says, is a protest “against Jewish compromise with paganism…. The real revolution would not come about through the nonpayment of taxes and the resulting violent confrontation. It would be a matter of total obedience to, and imitation of, Israel’s God; this would rule out violent revolution, as Matthew 5 [‘Sermon on the Mount’] makes clear.”

    As a concrete political program, could this fly? It would, as Wright says, transcend the popular view of the kingdom, “subverting the blasphemous claims of Caesar and the compromises of the the present Temple hierarchy and the dreams of the revolutionaries.”

    What would this have meant in practice?

  3. My own view tends to agree with yours, treegestalt. However, I like Jesus’ answer of “render unto Caesar…” because it appears to answer the question raised by his opponents, but actually doesn’t: It simply raises the much thornier issue of what is Caesars.

    For instance, if, as seems to be implied, the coin is Caesar’s, do I still have to pay taxes if I arrange to get my pay in non-Roman coins? (Actually, I remember a true story from some years ago about a small company owner who only paid his workers a pittance so they didn’t have to pay tax, except that he was going out and buying rare (but still legal tender) coins to pay them with. They then went out and sold the coins back to collectors for much more than face value. Somehow the taxman managed to get his cut in the end.)

    Sudden thought: perhaps it is an answer in a way. Give to Caesar the coin (tax) that is “his”, but do not give him the worship that the images on the coins imply. Then it becomes close to Paul’s admonition about meat sacrificed to idols, that it can be eaten if it is recognised that the idols are nothing.

    1. Caesar makes the coins so people can pay taxes. [This is a minority — but well-substantiated — view among economists on the historical origins of ‘money’.]

      What if people didn’t accept his coins? “I’m sorry, that coin would make me unclean. I’m dreadfully sorry, but it won’t do to disturb Him. An angry God? You wouldn’t believe the mess.”

      “I’m sorry, sir, the people just won’t take those coins with the images. ‘Idolatrous,’ they claim. No, I can’t just make a few examples; I’d have a revolt on my hands! You heard what happened the last time?”

      But I don’t think Jesus is providing a rule to follow or a strategy to apply. His questioners are asking for that; and he sees the question as a trap. So should we, perhaps.

      At the same time, he means something; he isn’t just ducking the issue.

      It isn’t about playing the Roman game more cleverly. The unwritten over-riding rule of Caesar’s game is: Caesar wins.

      It’s not a way for modern USians to fit comfortably within the system while maintaining a “Pharisaic” “Christian” piety. Neither ‘tax refusal’ (necessarily) nor “Pay it all while recognizing that the Republicrats and Demugglewumps are nothing” (though that too might be any particular person’s “right answer.”)

      “That stuff is Caesars. Don’t make a big deal about it?” For us, that’s how I read it. For subsistence farmers & dispossessed peasants reduced to itinerant farm labor & seasonal beggary?

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