Thursday, March 09, 2006

A Clash of Kingdoms

When the Pharisees come up to Jesus usually there is something afoot (just a little Bible study helper); so there is no oddity in Matthew Chapter 22 where we read "Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him" (v.15 NRSV). They start out in typical form: flattery. "'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 do you think;" then the question arises and the treachery comes with it like a bad stench, "Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" (v16-17). This is the archetypical 'damned if you do damned if you don't' question because if Jesus replies with a revolutionary "NO!" Caesar will have actual grounds to execute him. If Jesus replies with a passive "yes" he will be alienated from those who might otherwise follow and listen to him (I should mention though, this is rarely a concern of Jesus'). The question remains.

Jesus bypasses the polarized responses of "yes" and "no" with, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax [...] Whose head is this, and whose title?" (v 20). Instinctively, I imagine, they reply, "The Emperor's," and here is Jesus' brilliance, "Give to the Emperor what is the Emperor's, and to God the things that are God's" (v 21).

We are left wondering, and in awe with all those originally present. This because Jesus' true genius is in what he doesn't say as much as it is in what he actually says. The image of Caesar that is imprinted on the coin is the reason why it should go back to Caesar, just as the holy imago Dei (image of God) imprinted on our hearts is the reason why we must dedicate our entire lives to service. This is the genius of the unsaid, through the spring of a Pharisaical trap Jesus gives a sovereign decree that we belong to God, that we bear his image.

Some have attempted to view this verse as a proof-text lack of care for the material world, they say, " it is only a 'spiritual world that Jesus cared about'". This incorrect exegesis, first creates a false dichotomy; in Jesus' world there is no sacred and secular, it's all sacred and Jesus does care very much about this world--second, it misses the cryptic in Jesus sovereign decree. Jesus is in fact charging us to live in this world as belonging to God. This, of course, shapes our actions. In the book of Acts (ch. 17:7) early critics of the Christians say, "They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus." While the world toils to satisfy self and perpetuates the fierce mechanism for what often passes as 'progress' Christians "[act] contrary" to the way of the world, the way of Caesar.

Christianity, stretching back far into Judaism, has always been counter-cultural. That is it has always thought culture to be both sinful and have graces. Acts 17:7 is a picture of that, the Christians in Acts are going against the grain of the world to offer hope, through salvation and healing. Apparently this threatened the religious and political regimes at the time, perhaps because they sensed that there was a new kingdom flourishing, the kingdom of God.

For us now, as Christians, we should instinctively (of course due to the Holy Spirit) reply "Jesus" when our identity is put into question. When someone wonders what political party, or theology we belong to are first response should be, "I am with Jesus."


mrteague said...

I LOVE THIS! The juxtaposition of Caesar's image and the image with which God has imprinted us is...true, life, etc. Good eatin'.

Bryan Halferty said...

If anyone knows of an exegesis of Matthew 22:15-20 that is similar to this, I'd love to know.