In the second gospel’s account of Passion Week, Mark follows the argument over taxes with an argument ostensibly about the rules of levirate marriage, a law in which a brother is obligated to marry his deceased brother’s widow, if there were no offspring, in order to continue his name (that is in order to keep his property within the family). And then comes the question of what is the greatest commandment? In answer to the question, Jesus naturally quotes the law:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul [and with all your mind] and with all your strength. [And] love your neighbor as yourself. (Mark 12:30-31; see Deut 6:4-5 and Lev 19:18)

For us, love is an emotion of the heart, which we usually think of as arising spontaneously as a more or less instinctual response to something. Not so for Jesus and his listeners. For him and all followers of Torah in his time, love was a legal obligation, not just a spiritual ‘commandment’; love was a legal term, not just an emotional one.

Love is the willing, yea, even joyous, commitment to the terms of the covenant with God. The commandment of love summarizes the essential obligations of the covenant.

Thus Mark, in his version of the story, rightly quotes the Shema, the essential confession of Jewish faith, directly from Deuteronomy, as introduction: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

In this context, the three articles of the law of love define comprehensively three areas of human life and activity that are covered in the legal obligation of ‘love’. But to understand what’s involved you have to understand ancient semitic anthropology and let go of the anthropology we western Christians have inherited from the Greeks.

For ancient Semites, the ‘heart’ was not the seat of the emotions, as it is for us; it was the seat of the will, and of wisdom—that is, of the willingness and capacity to study and especially, to follow, Torah: the commitment to know and follow the law, the intention to obey God. This is why Mark adds “and your mind” in his version of the story—he realizes that his Greek readers will misunderstand the term “with all your heart” to mean just the emotions.

For Jesus and his listeners, the ‘soul’ was not some eternal spiritual identity that inhabited the body as something that is ‘poured’ into it as a vessel, as the Greeks believed; for them, the ‘soul’ meant the whole living person. There was no soul separate from the body, and the word encompassed all that was involved with real life in the world as a living entity.

For Jesus and his listeners, ‘strength’ meant all of your material resources and, specifically, your money and other forms of wealth. Originally, it meant willingness to answer the call to holy war against Israel’s enemies when one of the tribes or a prophet called for a muster. Hence the usage of “strength”.

So the love commandment meant: you shall be faithful to the terms of my covenant by dedicating yourself to knowing and following my instructions (that is, Torah); and you shall dedicate to me your very personhood, including all your possessions. That is: you owe me everything. And furthermore, says Jesus: you shall treat your fellow covenanters (neighbors) under the law just as you want to be treated yourselves.

This decisively answers the question posed in Mark a few verses earlier of what we should render to Caesar and what to God: God gets everything, Caesar gets nothing. And, for Jesus, the ‘srength’ clause in the legislation, coupled with loving your neighbor as yourself, provided the legal foundation for his economics of redemption: forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors and the rest of the platform for the common-wealth of God, in which the community takes care of its poor, as in Acts chapters two and four. But more about the economics of redemption in the commonwealth of God in later posts. For this is the very heart of the gospel of Jesus—good news for the poor.

And though Jesus here invokes the law (rather than throwing it over, as Paul does later), he has spent his whole prophetic career redefining the law as he wants it applied in his own community.

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, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere and show deference to no one; 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.

Mark 12:13-17

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, of 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.

Exodus 15:2-4

But back to the coin. The Roman coin they’ve pulled from their purse and brought into the temple precincts has, on one side, an inscription that reads, “Caesar, son of god”, and on the other side, it bears 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 on two counts, the first being the essential commandment of all, and of 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 laid for him 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 an earlier story, 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 your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.

Deuteronomy 6:4

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 Pharaoh 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.

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 the vessels full of money 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.

Isaiah 53:7

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.

Jeremiah 7:5-11

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.

An exorcism

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 in the court against the moneychangers share key elements. The evangelists use 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, literally, beth-ani, the House of the Poor.

 

Introduction.

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 Roman/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 you 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 during Passover week.

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.