April 17, 2010
After my series on the Politics of Passion Week, I am returning to finish the series on the Beatitudes and Bankruptcy, begun some time ago.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Like a couple of other Beatitudes, these two seem on the surface to have no direct bearing on bankruptcy and inheritance law. This is especially true of the blessing of the “pure in heart”. When taken together, however, a parallelism emerges that suggests an indirect connection to justice, debt and debt relief. ‘Parallelism’ is a poetic device much used in Hebrew scripture and in the words of Jesus in which the second of two consecutive elements repeats and restates the first, often by developing the idea further or by giving a more specific or a more general case.
The clue to the parallelism is the echo of “they will see God” in “they will be called the sons of God.” The New Revised Standard Version quoted at the top is striving for gender neutrality with its “children of God,” but the Greek (and the Hebrew) reads “sons.” “The sons of God” is what the Bible calls angels. We know from Jesus’ dispute with the Sadducees in the temple about levirate marriage (Matthew 22:30) that Jesus believed the righteous do not have physical bodies after death but become “like the angels in heaven.” Where, as angels, they will “see God.”
So, if the second halves of these two Beatitudes express the same idea—that of a heavenly reward among the angelic host—the first halves do, as well. That is, being “peacemakers” explains what being “pure in heart” means.
Furthermore, all this echoes Psalm 24 (verses 3 & 4):
Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.
‘Clean hands’ means those whose actions are free of guilt; ‘pure hearts’ means those with righteous motives and intentions. For the ‘heart’ in ancient Semitic anthropology is the seat of the will, not of the emotions or sentiments, as in Greek anthropology, which we have inherited. To be pure in heart means to dedicate yourself solely to the law (Torah) and its justice. And, according to Psalm 24, that means not worshipping idols and not giving false testimony in court or trying to swindle others with false oaths.
Finally, “peacemakers” are people who work to reconcile enemies. This is a quasi-legal term, in that it refers to those who seek to reconcile parties in legal dispute. We would call them arbitrators.
While most of the Beatitudes are addressed to those who are being oppressed economically—the debtors in cases of bankruptcy—these two address third parties in such cases, people who are in a position to help the debtor find justice. This could also be the plaintiffs, those who hold the debtor’s note, who, because they are pure of heart, decide to make peace by withdrawing their claim on the debtor’s property. This is what the previous Beatitude speaks to: Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy, which restates the line from the Lord’s prayer: forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
Thus the first four Beatitudes speak to the debtors in cases of bankruptcy. The fifth (blessed are the merciful) speaks to the creditor. And the sixth and seventh promise a place in heaven to those third parties who help protect the debtor from foreclosure. You could do this in one of two ways: you could convince the creditor to be merciful, or you could assume the debtor’s debt yourself as a redeemer. This latter is probably what Jesus had in mind, with an act that will be rewarded with a place among the angels.
In the next posting , we shall see that Jesus widens his focus in the final Beatitude to address the community that seeks to ensure debt-righteousness as he is defining it, and that faces persecution because of its radical reconstruction of its economics.
April 13, 2010
Jesus appeared to his friends and followers ten different times, if you count all the accounts in all four gospels and then adjust for duplicates (both Mark and Luke recount an appearance to two men walking on the road; both Mark and John recount an appearance to Mary Magdalene alone at the tomb). Mark 16:14, Luke 24:36, and John 20:19-23 might all be the same event, as well, since Jesus appears to the disciples in each story while they are eating and they all include references to doubting the resurrection; but I’m treating them as separate events. All of the accounts in Mark are somewhat suspect because the original gospel breaks off abruptly before any resurrection accounts; all of chapter 16 was added later and most manuscripts don’t have verses nine to the end, which includes all the actual appearances. In fact, doubt, ambivalence and ambiguity color most of the stories of resurrection appearances.
In three of the ten, the people to whom Jesus appears do not recognize him until something happens to open their eyes. These include the two men on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-32); the disciples, right after being told by these same fellows from Emmaus about their encounter (and they are apparently actually still there in the room; Lk 24:36-49); and several disciples while fishing on the Sea of Galilee (Jn 21:1-14).
One of these appearances—to Mary Magdalene at the tomb—receives conflicting accounts. In Mark (16:9), Mary recognizes Jesus. In John (20:14), she doesn’t, at least not right away.
Four of the accounts include some reference to a problem with recognizing Jesus or believing in his resurrection. In Matthew 28:16ff, Jesus appears to the Eleven on a mountain in Galilee, “but some doubted.” In Mark 16:14, Jesus appears to the Eleven and rebukes them “for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe.” In the two appearances to the disciples with and without doubting Thomas in John 20:19-29, the people present at the moment do not doubt, but the stories are all about the doubter Thomas. Also, weirdly, seven of these men, including Simon and Thomas, fail to recognize Jesus again in the story of the appearance to the fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, in the passage that follows directly after the story of Thomas feeling Jesus’ wounds and believing; Thomas and the others have already somehow again lost their ability to recognize/believe after having just regained it.
In only two of the accounts do Jesus’ followers recognize him right away, with no reservations or complications, when he appears to them: the women at the tomb in Matthew 28:1-10, and Simon in a very brief, offhand notice with no elaboration in Luke 24:34.
The point is that Jesus’ followers needed to be coaxed into believing that the vision Jesus had given them of a reign of God that would transform their outer and inner lives was still alive and viable, even though Jesus himself wasn’t anymore. For this, they needed time. And they needed repetition. Even people who were intimates of Jesus himself had to be coached—they had to be taught, all over again, over and over again, what the kingdom of God meant, now that the Teacher was no longer with them in the flesh.
The story of the two men on the road to Emmaus is instructive in this regard. They recognize Jesus, after hours of conversation, only after he has broken bread with them. That is, after they have shared the common meal that the Last Supper epitomized and which was apparently the central daily-bread event in Jesus’ movement. The teaching dimension of this meal comes clear in its description in Acts (2:42-47):
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
The apostles taught; they distributed food and money to the poor; they ate; and they prayed. Apparently when gathered together for the common meal. Food and teaching and religious experience and radical economics were all almost literally the same thing. They ate and studied together, they shared all they had, and they had profound religious experiences, all of which were so attractive that more and more people joined them.
Give us this day our daily bread. Feed my sheep. You shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? How much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him? This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.
At some point in the future, I want to start a series on spiritual food—on the way Christian scripture conflates feeding and teaching, eating and learning, sharing and understanding. For now, I close this series on the Politics of Passion Week with this conclusion about the politics of resurrection:
When Jesus’ followers were finally convinced that he continued to live and work among them and within them, his presence inspired them to radically remake the social and economic structures of their community along egalitarian and communitarian lines. This took discipline. It took study, practice, repetition, example. Folks lost the message, and then were brought back again. It was hard work. But it filled them with awe and joy.
April 4, 2010
The most radical thing about the scene at the empty tomb and the two resurrection appearances that took place there (in Matthew and John) is that the first witnesses of the resurrection were women. This in a society in which women could not appear in court as witnesses. Typically, the men don’t believe them.
For a most thorough and enlightening discussion of women’s place among the earliest followers of Jesus, I highly recommend Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins.
In regard to gender relations, Jesus seems to have gone quite far in placing the last first. Over and over again, it is women who seem to really know who Jesus is, while the male disciples are consistently obtuse. One thinks of Martha’s anointing in John 12, the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her hair in Luke 7, and the little group who traveled with him and the twelve in the very early days, who provided them all with financial support (Luke 8:1-4).
In many cases, these women were doubly marginalized by some other condition, either poverty or spirit possession. Luke says these female ‘angel investors’ were “women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases.” See Stevan L. Davies’s Jesus the Healer for a fascinating discussion, building on the work of Franz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth), of spirit possession as a strategy of survival for women in abusive family situations and how Jesus may have rescued Mary Magdalene and the others from such relationships.
The other significant political aspect of the crucifixion and resurrection is the collapse of whatever overtly political expectations Jesus may have had for the kingdom of God. We tend to take the subsequent spiritualization of the kingdom of God for granted, but it’s not clear that Jesus had no overtly political ambitions at all. The evangelists are at pains to put a spiritualizing spin on Jesus’ claims for the kingdom during the trial, but the gospels were written a generation later, after a disastrous war with Rome, under active if sporadic imperial and local persecution, when claiming a spiritual kingdom when you were on trial conformed to reality. But if Jesus was not concerned with the actual overthrow of Roman rule and the replacement of the empire’s puppets in Jerusalem, and with making the first last and the last first, what was the little apocalyptic sermon in Mark 13 and the other gospels all about? Why stage these provocative demonstrations at the city gate and inside the temple precincts? Why prophecy the utter destruction of the temple? Why buy two swords?
It all hinges on what Jesus was praying for in Gethsemane. When we read “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me”, we tend to think Jesus saw the torture and death that awaited him and felt fear; but what if the Father had answered with a ‘yes’? Jesus isn’t tortured and crucified. But what happens instead? What was Jesus really praying for?
We’ll return to this question in some afterthoughts later this week. The fact is that the answer was no. And with Jesus’ death, his hopes for some other outcome died, as well. Whatever political dimension that outcome might have had foundered and the disciples were left to figure out: what now? That took them awhile.
They did not even recognize right away that the dream they had been pursuing and the figure who had led them were still alive. Several of the first witnesses of the resurrection do not even recognize Jesus when they see him. People like Mary, who had been his intimates for years, look straight at him and do not recognize him. Two fellows travel on the road to Emmaus for hours discussing the fateful events that have just taken place with the very man himself and don’t recognize him until they sit down to eat. What’s with that? Another thing we’ll discuss in the afterthoughts.
April 3, 2010
Jesus is arguably the most famous person to be tortured to death as an insurrectionist by an occupying imperial army.
Crucifixion is execution by stress position. Though the victim was often nailed to the cross, as Jesus was, you did not normally die of these wounds, and the victim often was only hung on the cross with rope. You died gradually of asphyxiation from the position in which you hung, sometimes complicated by shock and dehydration, depending on how badly you had been treated while in custody.
Why did the Romans torture Jesus? Why did George W. Bush and Dick Cheney torture insurrectionists at Abu Ghraib and in the CIA’s secret ‘black sites’?
Aside, that is, from the dehumanization of the enemy that is the sine qua non for all warfare. Aside from ideology, which inevitably claims that a little evil is justified in order to protect a greater good. Aside from the naked rush that the powerful feel when exercising their power over others. Aside from the lesson that terror teaches other enemies of the state. Aside from these breakdowns of morality, reason, character and political justice that make torture possible—empires torture dissidents to get information.
“Hail, King of the Jews,” mocked the soldiers as they stripped Jesus, crowned him with thorns and beat him with a staff (the symbol of royal military authority in ancient Israel—“thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me”). “He saved others but he can’t save himself!” Go ahead, save yourself. TELL US WHO YOUR FRIENDS ARE. Especially that fellow with the sword.
George W. Bush believes that the torture of Jesus was necessary to save his immortal soul. George W. Bush believes that torturing insurrectionists in Iraq was necessary to save American lives. For George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Jack Bauer, and many Americans, torture has legitimate salvific power. Never mind that the torturer assumes the place of the Romans who murdered their God.
Meanwhile, while the torturers are playing with Jesus, the fellow with the sword is skulking around in their very midst. Peter, wanted by the police for insurrection, assault with a deadly weapon, attempted murder, and associating with a known terrorist, has infiltrated the police compound and hides under their very noses. Thrice, people think they recognize him, and yet he does not run away. Instead he denies their accusations and stays.
Why? What is he doing there? The only answer that makes any sense is that he’s looking for a way to spring his leader from jail, to save him from a terrible death. Does that not sound like the Peter who launched himself into the water without thinking? Is that not about the bravest thing you can imagine him doing? Is it not a miracle that he escaped alive?
A generation later, when confession of faith and martyrdom were becoming idealized and even fetishized, Peter looks like a coward. But in the moment, he was a hero with extraordinary courage, resourcefulness and loyalty.
He couldn’t save Jesus, but Jesus did save him. Jesus never cracked. He never told his torturers who his confederates were. He took the rap for them all.
His followers did, apparently, try one mass demonstration aimed at getting Jesus released. At least that’s how I read the weird and impossible account of Pilate and Barabbas (informed again by the work of Hyam Maccoby). First, the Pilate of Christian Scripture is a wimp, a pathetic if not quite sympathetic character. But the real Pontius Pilate was so vicious and oppressive that the emperor had him removed from office! And we have no record of any tradition of releasing prisoners (especially one like Barabbas, convicted also, of insurrection) on Passover (a holiday dedicated to revolution against empire), a practice that is unthinkable as official Roman imperial policy. So a crowd may have demanded that the authorities release Barabbas, but we can be pretty sure it never happened.
But who was Barabbas? Let’s look at his name: in Aramaic, Jesus’ native tongue and the universal Semitic language of the time: “bar Abbas” means “son of the father.” Father—as in “Our Abbas who art in heaven.”
“Son of the Father” is redundant and meaningless on its own. But it is the obvious appellation for the man whose Father said at his baptism, “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased.” For the man who taught the Lord’s Prayer.
And it is perfectly reasonable to think that a crowd might gather to demand Jesus’ release, calling out the epithet by which he had become known: “Give us bar Abbas!” Well, it didn’t work. They crucify insurrectionists, don’t they.
April 1, 2010
Jesus’ instructions for preparing the Passover meal read like a spy novel: follow a man carrying water; he will take you to our secret safehouse. Give the homeowner a password and he will show you to an upper room. Besides the secrecy, five other elements of the Last Supper story indicate the revolutionary character of this gathering:
- Jesus inaugurates a new covenant with the messianic banquet/common meal as the celebration of God’s newly established reign.
- Jesus demonstrates for whom he has established his new ‘interim government’ in the way the meal is shared: this is, of course, for the poor.
- Jesus reclaims the cultic authority of the temple and its officiating priests, instituting his own replacement for the central daily offerings to God in the temple with the Eucharist.
- Jesus takes a Nazirite vow, dedicating himself to wholehearted service as a consecrated ‘warrior’ to God’s deliverance of God’s people.
- Jesus purchases weapons—why?
New covenant. As celebretory signs of the new covenant, Jesus uses bread and wine, which do not have such a central role in the Passover meal. I agree with Bruce Chilton that the bread and wine are meant to replace the show-bread and wine libation placed daily on the altar in the temple as the symbol/reality of Yahweh’s continuing presence among his (sic) people, his “supping with them”. With the words of the Eucharist, Jesus declares the government of the temple-state and its cultic foundation no longer constitutional and declares his own community the provisional government of Israel—provisional until God comes Godself to rule in the land.
Solidarity with the poor. Jesus’ treatment of the wine and the bread express the revolutionary character of his provisional government, also. Of the bread, the evangelists say, “While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it, he broke it and gave it to them and said . . .” In the ancient Near East, everyone at the table was provided his (sic) own loaf of bread. The host served the meal in serving dishes set in the middle of the table and individual diners broke pieces of their loaf off and used them as ‘tools’ with which to pick pieces of food from the common bowl. There were no forks, so bread was used to prevent touching the common food with your hands. (See Luke 11:5-6)
When Jesus breaks a single loaf and distributes the pieces to all the diners, he is doing two radical things at once. First, and most audacious, there is one loaf because only one loaf is placed on Yahweh’s altar in the temple—Jesus is distributing God’s own personal loaf of bread. The act symbolizes that God dines with them; this is the messianic banquet which Jesus described in his parable of the great banquet (Mt 22:2-14).
At the same time, using only one loaf expresses radical solidarity with the poor, with people who are too poor to provide a loaf for every person at the table. It also demonstrates how Jesus’ interim government in God solves the problem of poverty: by sharing, and by trusting in God to provide.
The eucharist. The first covenant was sealed—and thereafter renewed—by the pouring of sacrificed oxen blood upon the altar by the priests. Jesus seals his new covenant, not with oxen blood, not with a cultic act at the altar, but with wine and a ‘cultic’ act at the table. He is saying, “That is their blood of the covenant, which they sprinkle on their altar; this is my blood of the covenant, that we share together as the cup of God’s fullness at God’s table.
This is not the traditional interpretation of the eucharist, of course—that Jesus really meant his own blood. But it is unthinkable that Jesus meant the wine to represent somehow his own blood. The law strictly forbad eating blood, even for Gentiles living among Jews (Lev 17:10-12). This prohibition is one of the few instructions from the law that the Council of Jerusalem chose to apply to Gentiles as part of its accommodation of Paul’s Gentile mission (Acts 15:19-20).
Equally unthinkable to Jesus and his first Jewish followers would have been the idea that Jesus himself would have served as either a human sacrifice or a divine sacrifice whose blood could atone for Israel. Yahweh had categorically rejected human sacrifice almost two thousand years earlier when God released Abraham from the necessity of sacrificing his son Isaac, a common cultic act when founding a nation (witness Agamemnon and Iphegenia for Hellenic Greece, Romulus and Remus for Rome, Cain and Abel for the Kenites). Likewise, the sacrifice of a god, on the model of Dionysus or Mithra in their respective mystery cults, and the associated salvific function of their blood, was so foreign to Jesus’ religion that Hebrew scriptures never even mention such a thing so as to condemn it. Drinking a dying god’s blood was the most extreme form of idolatrous paganism.
Instead, Jesus sealed the new covenant with a messianic banquet, at which God and the New Israel supped together in a celebration that anticipated the immanent arrival, judgment and salvation of God Godself, as Israel’s true sovereign father.
The Nazirite vow. That Jesus expected the direct rule of God very soon is indicated by his Nazirite vow just after inaugurating the covenant: “For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:18). With this vow, Jesus dedicated himself to the climactic final work of his ministry.
The Nazirite vow was a warrior vow (see Numbers 6:1-8 for the instructions concerning Nazirite vows). Not exclusively a warrior vow, though; the example of Samuel, the Nazirite prophet, seems to fit Jesus’ case more aptly than the example of Samson, the Bible’s most famous Nazirite warrior.
For Luke, the correspondences between Jesus and both Samuel and Samson were strong enough to help shape his birth narrative. The have in common:
- annunciation of the birth to the mother by an angel,
- a miraculous dimension to the birth itself,
- resistance or lack of understanding on the part of the father,
- dedication of the infant to God,
- a hymn sung by the mother of the child,
- anointing of the man by God’s holy spirit, and
- a career of service to God for the salvation of his people.
In particular, the Magnificat resembles the canticle of Hannah, Samuel’s mother. In both poems, Yahweh reverses the fortunes of the people accoarding to his (sic) justice: “he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53)
Jesus vows only to “never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God. (Mark 14:25)” He does not mention the prohibitions against cutting the hair or contact with corpses or sex, the rest of the Nazirite proscriptions. So perhaps he means something else here. Yet he has certainly assumed the stance of the warrior. He has focused his mission over the past several days quite intensely on revolution, on fulfilling the Magnificat’s promise of liberation. He clearly expects a climax, and soon; nor does he seem to expect the denouement to take very long. And finally, he orders—or at least sanctions—the disciples to acquire weapons. This is, perhaps, the most incongruous action of Jesus’ career.
The swords. This passage implies something deeper and more disturbing, actually, than the obvious possibility that the disciples were preparing for a fight. Jesus seems to be abandoning his Jubilee commitment to radical dependence on God. He reverses the commandment he had given earlier to “take nothing for your journey, no staff (defense), nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic. (Luke 9:3)” He seems to be saying, things have changed; it’s time we took matters into our own hands. And also that the moment of fulfillment is so close that you will not even need the shelter of your cloak tonight; you will need a sword more.
He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “No, not a thing.” He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’ (Isaiah 53:12); and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” They sayd, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.”
As rationale, Jesus quotes Isaiah 53, one of the Servant Songs, a poem that prefigures in many of its details the hours that will follow: the arrest, Jesus’ taunting and death and burial. The “lawless” here (Hebrew, pasha) means to break away from just authority; to rebel or revolt; it also could mean ‘bandit’.
With the line that Jesus quotes, he implies that bringing the sword will ensure that he will be “numbered among the transgressors,” and this will ensure that he dies. Immediately upon his arrest, he says as much, clarifying what he means by transgressors: “Have you come with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit?” Yes is the answer; they do “number” him a bandit, and the sword Peter uses against the high priest’s servant proves it. They “number” him among the transgressors when they crucify him among bandits, too. The authorities consider Jesus the leader of a bandit gang. At the arrest, Jesus ensures that only he is taken into custody, that he takes the rap for his followers, “the many”.
We’ll look at the Son of Man as bandit in more detail tomorrow when we discuss the arrest. In the meantime, we are left to ponder the mystery of the swords.
March 30, 2010
For the next several days, Jesus plays cat and mouse with the temple state authorities, arguing with them in the temple courts during the day and hiding from them in his secret hideout on the Mount of Olives at night. All of this—the hiding, the legal arguments, the parables and denouncements—have political and/or economic dimensions, and they are too many to cover in his little series of blog entries. But some stand out. I want to start with the famous saying, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” This is usually quoted to mean exactly the opposite of what Jesus intended.
Having failed to entrap Jesus in blasphemy, the rulers try tax evasion. In a classic Jesus jiu-jitsu move,he uses their own words and motives to trap and condemn them instead.
Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, “Teachere, we know that you are sincere and show deference to no ony; 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 others, “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 head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.
What a subtle story of shrewd maneuvering is the account of the fencing match over taxes to Rome! And how incindiary is the issue. For both religious and political-economic reasons, tax resistance crouched just beneath the ground cover of Judean life, rising as open rebellion several times during Jesus’ own lifetime.
The fate of Jesus’ ministry hung on his answer to this question about taxes. Prevaricate before his challengers and he loses credibility with his followers, who know that fulfillment of the Jubilee and the coming of the kingdom he has promised requires the end of oppressive Roman taxation. Deny Caesar’s authority to tax means certain arrest. This is, perhaps, the most important dialog between Jesus and his adversaries in Christian scripture, at least from the point of view of narrative, of plot development.
At issue is the Roman poll tax, a head tax that requires a census of the population, the very sort of tax census that Luke claims put Mary and Joseph on the road to Bethlehem. That census actually took place in 6 CE, some ten years after Jesus was born, and it led to a tax rebellion that the Romans crushed with brutal force. Why did Jesus’ people revolt? Because God’s law expressly forbade a tax census, whose primary purpose was always the support of a state bureaucracy and, especially, a standing army. The legislation against a tax census was written into the constitution federating the twelve tribes of Israel long before Saul and David established the monarchy, and even David did not dare hold a census or organize a standing army. For, as the Song of the Sea put it, “Yahweh is a warrior” (Exodus 15:5)—to God alone is Israel to look for her defense against her enemies, not to her own military resources. In other words, the Roman poll tax usurped Yahweh’s sovereignty as the true king of Israel and violated his covenant with his people.
Beginning with Solomon, the kings of Israel and Judah ignored this law. But the theology behind the law—that God alone is sovereign over his people—remained the central theme throughout the Bible. It inspired many rebellions against usurpers, both domestic and foreign, not least or last Jesus’ own movement. Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees and Herodians will declare who he believes is the rightful sovereign of Judea—God or Caesar.
Jesus’ enemies open the match with a feint to pull him off balance. They invoke his famous integrity, his equal treatment of all people regardless of station, and his forthrightness of speech. His riposte: he asks for a Roman coin—and they produce one.
These Pharisees—these hypocrites who pride themselves on their strict observance of the law, and especially their rigorous adherence to the regulation against anything that would make them unclean, have on their persons objects that violate both the first and second commandments and which are unclean. (Though, in fairness, we may assume that the Herodians produced the coin. ‘Herodian’ was virtually synonymous with assimilationist, meaning someone of the party supporting the line of Herod and their consistent policy of directing Judea toward ‘modernism’, that is, toward cultural assimilation and full economic and political integration into the Roman empire. This included even abandoning circumcision. Their lax attitude toward the law and their physical and cultural associations with Gentiles made Herodians themselves unclean in Pharisaic eyes, however, so either way, these Pharisess are hypocrites.)
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourselves a graven image.
But back to the coin. The Roman coin they’ve pulled from their purse and brought into the temple precincts have, on one side, an inscription that reads, “Caesar, son of god”, and on the other side, they bear the image of Caesar-god. Jesus has entrapped them in their own question, unmasked them as hypocrites on their own terms, and indicted them for breach of Yahweh’s covenant and collusion with the Roman engine of economic oppression.
He rubs it in, asking, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” Then he delivers the coup de gras with one of the most familiar and misinterpreted sentences in the Bible: “Render therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
This clever answer deftly sidesteps the trap they have set and yet directly drives home his answer by quoting the very Torah which the Pharisees claim from one side of their mouths and reinterpret from the other. The thrust of his argument lies in the answer to the question: what debt do you owe to God (and to Caesar)?
‘Render’ means in Greek to repay a debt, pay whom you owe. Mark and Luke have set up the story with the parable of the tenants, making it clear that the tenants (the rulers of the temple and of the people of Judea) owe the land-Lord (God), and that what they owe to God is the land itself and its fruits. God, not Caesar, owns the land and its fruits—the economic wealth of Judea—and to him (alone) are the rent dues owed.
Jesus has answered the question of what is rendered to God, decisively and comprehensively. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus specifically defines what we owe God under the law just twelve verses after this duel with the Pharisees, when a scribe asks him what is the greatest commandment (Mk 12:29-31). We’ll talk more about the commandment of love tomorrow.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.
Hear, O Israel: There is only one God, Jesus reminds them, and we owe everything we have to him: our love, our commitment, our minds, our soul, our material possessions, our very lives.
What is left for Caesar after loving God, that is, giving to God all your heart, all your soul, all your strength as repayment of the debt we owe the Lord? Nothing is left. We render nothing to Caesar, because we have given all to God, and nothing remains.. Especially not taxes, since we know that “with all your strength” meant explicitly, with all your material wealth.
Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees and Herodians means: how can we pay the Romans their poll tax, to support the very army that holds us down, when the legal mechanism for executing the tax is against God’s law, when the act itself usurps God’s sovereignty, and when we have already given all we have to the poor, whom Caesar (and yourselves, you hypocrites, he adds) have helped to impoverish? Furthermore, we owe God because God set us free from Pharoah and our oppressors, gave us this land as an inheritance, and created us as a people. Are we now to owe Caesar for enslaving us, seizing our land, and trying to destroy our identity as a people?
No—it is not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. This is Jesus’ answer. But he has answered in such a way as to shame his challengers and avoid prosecution. “And they were utterly amazed,” say the evangelists. Utterly ‘consternated’ would be a better translation.
March 30, 2010
Jesus raids the temple treasury
Directly from the royal processional to the city gates, Jesus and his exultant followers go to the temple gates and one of the most extraordinary events in Jesus’ ministry begins: he raids the temple treasury. Picture the scene:
A crowd arrives at the gate of the Temple with their leader at the head. They are singing, “This is the gate that belongs to Yahweh; let the righteous/triumphant enter through it” (Ps 118:20). The demonstrators stream into the Temple court behind Jesus, who advances to the tables of the moneychangers. Quoting the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, he grabs the planks and heaves them over.
In a clatter of wings, the doves ascend into heaven from their shattered cages. The four-legged animals get jittery, bleating and lowing nervously and pressing against their pens in increasing panic. Accounting records fall beneath the tables and underfoot, splintering clay tablets, smearing ink, tearing parchment and vellum. Coins splash onto the pavement and roll away. Servants trying to escape with vessels are intercepted.
Over the shouting and laughing and hymn singing, Jesus harangues the merchants, quoting Isaiah and Jeremiah in their faces and literally herding them toward the gates of the court with a cattle whip.
…for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord.
While Jesus is pronouncing his oracle of judgment against the thieving oppressors of the alien, the orphan and the widow, and dismantling the infrastructure of their oppression—what are his followers doing? When the gospel is for the poor, and the Jubilee relieves debt, and the kingship of God replaces the mastership of Mammon, of wealth gained through thievery, force and privilege—certainly, the crowds are swooping on the rolling coins with a whoop and stuffing them into their pockets. Certainly, the vessels Jesus intercepts are full of money, or they soon are filled with money. Surely, the accounting records are deliberately trampled, just as tax and debt records were and will be destroyed by other peasant uprisings in Israel’s history. Perhaps the twelve watch for the inevitable police intervention, maybe stacking tables in front of the doors, or helping to keep the money-gathering operation a systematic pillage on behalf of the poor and watching that no one pockets a personal take.
Matthew and Mark tell us that, after inciting a riot, Jesus remained in the Temple precincts, teaching the people while the Temple authorities plotted ways to kill him. Hard to imagine, unless the crowd was large and totally on his side. This is easy to imagine. Furthermore, the passage Jesus had quoted from Jeremiah against the rulers explicitly condemned violence against innocents in the temple and many there could personally remember when just this atrocity had occurred during a tax rebellion under Quirinius in 6 CE.
So Jesus stole from the rich and the emperor and gave to the poor. While Jesus’ actions and the Bible passages he uses to support his demonstration emphasize the political and, especially, the economic thrust of the action, Jesus also clearly intends to ‘cleanse’ the temple of its idolatrous and polluting elements; or, to put it more accurately, the two are the same thing: theft from the poor is idolatry, for Jesus, as it was for Jeremiah and other prophets before him.
To reinforce this meaning of ‘cleansing’, the evangelists use the language of exorcism to tell the story. Jesus “drives out” the moneychangers, the same word (ekballein) and the same action as “casting out” unclean spirits. As an exorcism, the cleansing of the temple stands as a hallmark case of our enriched definition of possession as assimilation to Greco-Roman culture and its greed and lust for power (Mt 20:25-28). And “casting out” meant rejecting the way of the world and taking care of each other; it often meant being cast out of temple, synagogue or even one’s own home.
Jesus made the economic dimension of exorcism and the exorcistic dimension of radical economic reconstruction explicit with the story of binding the strong man. As Ched Meyers has pointed out in Binding the Strong Man, this parable and the action of in the court of the moneychangers share key elements. The evangelists us the same word for the “vessels” of the temple as for the “household goods” of the parable. In the story of the cleansing, these vessels were the coffers used to cart the money into the temple. The “house” of the strong man in the parable is the House of the Lord of Isaiah 56:7.
Jesus told the story of the strong man to legitimize his authority to cast out demons. Jesus casts out spirits by the Holy Spirit as the legitimate head of the true, undivided house of God. The temple, as the illegitimate House of the Lord, is divided—against the poor, especially—and therefore cannot stand.
The cleansing episode describes an act of political-economic liberation. The temple is released from the demonic possession of usurious oppressors—and the money of the oppressors is released to the oppressed from whom they’ve stolen it. The den of thieves has been liberated—by a crowd of counter-thieves. Jesus here acts as a 1st century Robin Hood in the quintessential pattern of the peasant uprising, motivated as was so often the case with such uprisings in ancient Judea, by religion.
But, as with so many of Jesus’ actions and parables, the ‘cleansing of the temple’ expresses a paradox; they turn his religious-political tradition on its head. For if the house of the strong man is the temple and Jesus is the binder, then the Son of Man is the thief. In order to bind up the brokenhearted and release from darkness those who are bound (Lk 4:18), the anointed one must bind the strong man (the rulers of the temple-state) and cast out the thieves who oppress the poor.
Meanwhile, of course, these money-changers must certainly have run to the rulers of the temple and the Roman guards on watch from the bastions of the Tower of Antonia must have seen the riot below and mobilized a unit for crowd control.
Matthew implies that Jesus stayed long enough to heal the blind and the lame and to dispute with the chief priests and teachers of the law about the crowd’s (the children’s) acclaims of Hosanna to the Son of David. Yet, with the riot police storming down fortress Antonia’s steps, he could hardly have lingered long. Did he ‘heal’ the ‘lame’ and the ‘blind’ with a lightning strike of direct action, with the Jubilee release-liberation of stolen money? Or did the demonstration convert the spiritually blind and lame, so that they confessed the coming of the kingdom in their lives, given that ‘children’ was both a metaphor and a technical term for new converts to the Way? Or both?
Or perhaps the teeming crowds made it possible for Jesus to slip away into the outer courts in the temple complex, to continue teaching and building the reign of God, despite the dangers. All the accounts agree that he left the city at dusk and returned to his base in Bethany, the House of the Poor.
March 29, 2010
It’s been many months since I let this blog go fallow. Now I’m picking it up again, beginning with a series on the Politics of Passion Week, seeing as today is Palm Sunday. I had originally intended to begin on Saturday with the introduction that follows, but didn’t make it. That will make this first post rather long; sorry. And I plan to return to my interrupted series on the Beatitudes, inheritance and bankruptcy, which is no less timely a topic today as it was a year ago. Mortgage defaults are still rising and debt relief is still as urgently needed in America today as it was last year. And of course, the teachings and example of Jesus on the Economics of Redemption still demand action from Christian communities and offer practical guidance on policy economic.
But I want to reengage with my readers and with contemporary issues with a new series of posts on Jesus’ politics and, specifically, on the politics behind his words and actions in the last week of his prophetic ministry. By ‘politics’ I mean, in general, the relationships a person or a movement or community has with the institutions of power in their culture and with the people who wield that power.
Some people want a personal and spiritual Jesus who loves and acts above the messiness of the political sphere. But Jesus openly declared his political goal: to establish the kingdom of God. You can’t get much more political than that, especially since a ‘kingdom’ already existed in Judea under the governorship of Rome. You can’t preach and even inaugurate a ‘kingdom’—the kingdom of God—and spend years building a movement around the idea without thinking, talking and doing politics. You don’t actively promote a ‘kingdom,’ however spiritual its central message, when an established kingdom already exists, and not expect political opposition and struggle. You can’t associate with a political dissident who was executed for treason (John the Baptizer) and not have the secret police after you. You can’t publicly (if obliquely) challenge the great imperial power of your time without incurring its wrath. You don’t get tried and then executed for insurrection (Jesus was charged, sarcastically, as “Jesus, King of the Jews” at his crucifixion) by that imperial power unless you are seen as a political threat.
Jesus had been challenging the authorities throughout his ministry. But he had done so in the backwaters of Galilee and the outer corners of the old ideal boundary of Israel, territories not directly under Judean jurisdiction. Against this ‘establishment’, Jesus had, until the last week of his life, wielded only the word and the sign as weapons. Even his most dramatic signs he usually performed on the lost sheep of Israel, not their ‘shepherds’, their religious/political leaders, who almost always rejected his ministry. Against his enemies, he spoke, preached, taught, debated, rebuked or cursed. This ministry of words and signs had tremendous authority and power. But finally, upon arrival at Jerusalem, the time for a ministry of acts had come, a kairos time for Jesus the nazirite.
In the last week of his life, Jesus assailed every one of the functions of the temple state (legal, judicial, governmental, economic and law enforcement) on their home ground with outrageous public acts of defiance. He staged these acts so as to include obvious religious and prophetic elements designed to make his intention clear: he was calling the powers-that-be before God’s bench and proclaiming heaven’s verdict—they were guilty of usurping God’s authority (Rome) and of betraying their charge as shepherd of God’s flock (the Quisling Judean government). The Powers struck back with their own earthly persecution, with prosecution inspired, according to the gospels, by the daemonic prosecutor himself, the Satan. (See the important and fascinating work by Walter Wink on the Powers, here (his website) and here (Amazon.com).)
So let’s follow the events of Passion Week to see how Jesus directly assailed the powers in Jerusalem and their seat in the temple through a concerted campaign intended to invoke the apocalyptic overthrow of the entire establishment. We’ll start with the signature event of Palm Sunday.
The Inaugural Procession: declaring a new government under God
Jesus deliberately orchestrates his entrance on the stage of Jerusalem’s public life around a prophecy: Zechariah 9:9-13. (Many of the other events of Passion Week also revolve around passages in Zechariah.) Jesus has arranged for a mount, an ass—or two, for Matthew seems to have misunderstood the parallelism in Zechariah’s couplet and taken the second line literally; or perhaps Matthew deliberately harmonizes Jesus’ use of two mounts with the gift of two asses to King David in 2 Samuel 15-16, as we discuss below. Either way, the mount clearly ties Jesus to a claim of kingship, a kingship whose mission is to set free the prisoners and throw off the yoke of Hellenistic domination.
These arrangements for asses as mounts for the king carry a double allusion to Jesus’ royal status. In the episode just before this one in Mark and Matthew, blind Bartimaeus (or two blind men—the accounts differ) hails Jesus as “Son of David.” This takes place just outside Jericho and recalls an episode that occurred in a crisis moment in King David’s career.
In the little village of Bethphage a thousand years before, as David was fleeing his usurper son Absalom’s rebellion, he was met by Ziba the servant of Mephibosheth, the crippled son of Jonathan, Saul’s son, whom David had befriended after Saul and Jonathan’s death. This Ziba met David on the Mount of Olives with two asses and provisions for the royal entourage’s escape. With this help, David rides away from Jerusalem and into temporary exile. Now, Jesus, the Son of David, rides into Jerusalem into certain confrontation with the latest usurpers of the throne of Judah, the new Absaloms. Both ‘kings’ receive two asses as mounts for their journeys here at the same spot on Mt. Olivet, in Bethphage, the “house of the early ripening fig.” (Jesus will later curse a fig tree for not bearing fruit, even though it is too early in the season. We’ll talk about this later in the week.)
From Bethphage, the procession gets under way. Climbing to the crown of the Mount of Olives overlooking the Temple mount, the familiar yet dramatic pageantry of Palm Sunday unfolds. The people sing a hymn—Psalm 118, a king’s hymn of thanksgiving for his delivery from death and for his military victory–or rather, Yahweh’s victory (see Ps. 118:15-16).
Psalm 118:19-29—the source of the procession hymn on ‘Palm Sunday’
Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter and give thanks to the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that your have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord. The Lord is God; and he has given us light; bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar. Your are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you. O give thanks to the Lord , for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.
In the poem, the king’s procession enters the gates of the city, the gates of righteousness, and proceeds to the Temple, as Jesus’ procession will do a thousand years later. In verses 23-27—those quoted by the gospels—the voice shifts from first person (the king) to third person, the people. The poem has close affinities with Exodus 15, the ancient victory hymn celebrating Israel’s delivery from their primeval enemy, Egypt.
As the procession approaches the gates, the crowds bestrew the roadway with branches, in fulfillment of the psalm, and also with their cloaks, perhaps as a sign of their commitment to the economics of the reign of God, since cloaks were used as collateral for debts (Mt 5:40).
The city was filling up with pilgrims arriving for Passover, and this street demonstration may have been just one more event at the busy gates, lost in the surge of urban commerce and goings-on—or it may have caused quite a stir. It may have ignited some buzz in the always politically charged atmosphere of this festival, dedicated as it was to remembering Israel’s deliverance from imperial dominance. We know the Romans were in the habit of bringing an extra legion in from Syria to help with crowd control.
But Jesus is only warming up. His next stop is the temple and its currency exchange. There, in the very shadow of the primary legion’s fortress, he stages a second demonstration: the spillage—and pillage—of the coinage of the Temple. But that’s tomorrow’s entry.