This week I’m picking passages from Luke’s account of Jesus’ final days.
The Torah-teachers and the head priests would have seized him at that very moment, because they knew that he had aimed this parable at them, but they were afraid of the people.
20 So they kept a close watch on the situation. They sent spies who hypocritically represented themselves as righteous, so that they might seize hold of something Yeshua said, as an excuse to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor. 21 They put to him this test- question: “Rabbi, we know that you speak and teach straightforwardly, showing no partiality but really teaching what God’s way is. 22 Does Torah permit us to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor or not?” 23 But he, spotting their craftiness, said to them, 24 “Show me a denarius! Whose name and picture does it have?” “The Emperor’s,” they replied. 25 “Then,” he said to them, “give the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor. And give God what belongs to God!” 26 They were unable to trap him by anything he said publicly; indeed, amazed at his answer, they fell silent.
I picked this passage from the many that Luke gives of Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem because it so well illustrates his balance, humour, wisdom and radicalism.
It’s important to remember that Judaea was occupied by the Romans, who were swift to put down any uprising with extreme prejudice. There was a strong current of Jewish resentment, fuelling a powerful jihadi opposition which organised ambushes and suicidal attacks on Roman troops. They may have hoped for support from the Nazareth Rabbi. The religious leaders had an ambiguous relationship with the Roman power, partly representative of their people, partly complicit with the imperial power. In this situation, and in public, the test-question was well designed and dangerous.
Luke has Jesus respond by causally asking for a Roman coin, which is supplied immediately by his opponents revealing that they use the Roman coinage, that some religious militants would have refused to handle. This puts Jesus in the driving seat. But rather than laughing at their giveaway coinage, he asks a question about the image and inscription on the coin, forcing them to admit that they have been carrying around an image of Caesar.
in effect Jesus tells them that if they have bought into Caesar’s economy they might as well pay his taxes. But they must give to God what belongs to God. What is that? Well, just as the coin bears an image of Caesar, so every human being bears the image of God. Caesar may be able to demand your money, but God demands what is stamped with the divine image, namely people.
Political and economic forces may demand the allegiance of people, but Jesus teaches resistance: people are more than their political and economic determinants. Their individual worth and shared dignity are based on their reflection of their creator to whom they owe allegiance. All attempts by human or demonic powers to own people are an attack on God which must be resisted. Suddenly Jesus’ questioners are exposed as collaborators with a worldly power that claims divine authority.
The Jihadi response to imperial force is rejected because it fights it by its own violent methods. The religious leaders are rejected because they offer no opposition at all. Jesus’ example of quiet, peaceful and total opposition to Caesar’s blasphemous claim to own people is made clear.
In our world today, the USA and its allies are the blasphemous power that has attempted to control the world. It is no wonder that it has aroused opposition which mirrors its extreme violence in jihadi attacks on civilian populations, as in the atrocity in Belgium today. Jesus utterly rejected that way, while exposing the arrogance of world power and teaching his followers to oppose it peacefully and persistently. There will be no peace unless we expose the power, of which the UK is a part, that thinks it owns human beings.
Today’s passage explains why I have called this blog xtremejesus.