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.

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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.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

For Jesus and his listeners, these words were more than mere metaphor. Families that were about to lose their farm to foreclosure literally faced starvation. To avoid hunger, your options were limited. You could hope that day labor would provide enough income to buy food for your family. You could put a member of the family into debt slavery under the holder of the note. This family member would then work the debt off under the terms defined in Deuteronomy 15. If the claim on your land was unjust–if you were the victim of predatory lending intended to seize your property, which was the specific focus of the ninth and tenth commandments against ‘coveting’ (a terrible translation of the word)–you could hope that your creditor did the righteous thing and canceled the note. Or, if the debt was legitimate, you could pray that he would be merciful and cancel the note.

With these Beatitudes, Jesus was once again promising justice to the bankrupt and those facing bankruptcy. He was saying that, in the kingdom of God–that is, in his community of the new covenant–predatory lending was not allowed and all debts were to be canceled. He was saying that no one would lose their farm to foreclosure, because the righteous would redeem the debts owed them.

And he was not just promising blessings to the poor and oppressed, that is, to debtors; he also was promising blessings to creditors who embraced the new covenant of the kingdom. Show mercy (a technical term for withdrawing a legal complaint), and you will receive mercy. Or, in its more familiar phrasing: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

So reads the third Beatitude in Matthew (5:5). I was taught (were you?) that this meant something like, “Blessed are those who endure injury with patience and without resentment, for they shall reap a last reward (in heaven). It was a promise to the passive. But not so for Jesus and his listeners.

They recognized “meek” as a legal term referring to people who have been judicially disenfranchised by bankruptcy and can no longer represent themselves in court and must find another elder in the assembly who can bring their case. And “earth” (eretz, in Hebrew) is a word that’s really rich with meanings: it can mean earth in the universal, cosmic sense, but it can also mean just dirt, soil, specifically arable soil; but more pointedly, in a meaning that more directly fits with the legal meaning of “meek”, it can mean your land, your family farm, your inheritance. (It can also stand in for eretz Israel, the land of Israel, Yawheh’s inheritance.)

So this is what Jesus’ listeners heard:

Blessed are those who have lost their family farm and can therefore no longer protect themselves in court or bring their own claims for judgment, for they shall re-inherit their portion and recover their position among the elders of the assembly.

What would we do today if we aligned ourselves with the spirit of this pronouncement?

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Jesus’ promise that those who mourn will be comforted corresponds directly to his promise in his inaugural proclamation in Luke 4, quoting Isaiah 61, to “bind up the brokenhearted.”  The “brokenhearted” are those who have been impoverished by foreclosure, as you can see from the poetic parallelism in Isaiah’s oracle:

[He has sent me] to bind up the brokenhearted // to proclaim freedom for the captives, // and release from darkness for the prisoners // to proclaim the year that Yahweh favors–four ways to say basically the same thing.

‘Comfort’ here is a legal term. The Comforter (Paraclete in the gospel of John) was someone who took your side in court, either as your proxy among the elders, someone who can bring your case up in the assembly of elders (since you can’t do it yourself because you’ve lost your land), or as a witness in your defense.

So Jesus’ listeners heard this Beatitude this way:

Blessed are they who have lost their land and home, their means of livelihood, and mourn for their family and their children in poverty; for they shall have their (foreclosure) case appealed and ultimately repealed–for, when God takes up your case, you win.

The message for us?: be comforters. Be advocates for those in poverty.

We’re not done with the Beatitudes. My favorite, and the most misunderstood, I think, is next: Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth–a totally inadequate translation, as we shall see. But already some readers may be asking the question that naturally follows on all these promises: How? How is Jesus going to make good on these promises?

When they are just vague spiritual comfort, you can fob them off on the afterlife. But when the comfort promised is actual representation and action in real courts, including the reversal of real judicial decisions, as I am claiming, then how in practical terms did this work? Where is the evidence that Jesus actually fulfilled these promises? How did he plan to return the homeless to their land?

The answer, coming soon in a blog near you.

Matthew gives us eight Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:3-10), a number associated with over-abundance (think of Noah’s children)–one more than seven, the number of fullness. The number itself is a promise. (It would be nine Beatitudes if you count the one that breaks completely from all the others in its rambling, even chaotic, format (v. 11) and which seems to be addressed to believers suffering persecution, as they were in Matthew’s own community, rather than to the poor, and which promises relief from persecution rather than debt redemption like all the rest. I think this ninth one is a late addition.)

All the Beatitudes deal with inheritance law and specifically with bankruptcy and the severe poverty that foreclosure brings to free peasant farmers who have lost their land. The first is very straightforward (see also Luke 6:20):

Blessed are the poor (in spirit), for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (God).

“The poor” is ani in Hebrew, which also means ‘oppressed’. (Bethany, the village where Mary, Martha, Lazarus and Simon the Leper lived, is beth ani, house of the poor. Apparently, Jesus had two important community churches there, and we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that the Essenes had a leper colony there.) The poor are those who have lost their family farm and have no way to support themselves, except to appear in the morning at the village gate and hope for day labor on someone else’s farm (sound familiar?). It would not have been uncommon for the poor to end up working on their own farm, now in the hands of the man who had held their mortgage note. This is the source of the term “broken hearted” in Jesus’ delcaration of Jubilee debt freedom in Luke 4:18, and of “those who mourn”, which appears in the next Beatitude, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (We will discuss this one in a day or two.)

The promise–the fulfillment of the blessing–is “the kingdom of God.” The kingdom of God is the central teaching/promise in Jesus’ ministry: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The Father’s will is this (Luke 4:18-19) : that all debts be cancelled, that all slaves be set free (as He set the Israelites free at their foundation), that all families be returned to their original inheritance.

Jesus is saying:

Blessed are those who have lost their family farm/inheritance and now daily face starvation or humiliation as day laborers dependent on others, for they shall be returned to their portion.

The message for today? — Christian communities should be doing all they can to keep people in their homes and to help them get back on their feet if they go bankrupt. And they should support very liberal bankruptcy law, unlike the most recent federal bankruptcy legislation, which makes it hard to file and hard to start over. This should be the central mission of every congregation, as it was the central mission of Jesus.

In part 2–what does “comforted” mean in the next Beatitude? Coming soon to a blog near you.

Christ on bankruptcy

June 5, 2009

The thread that has unraveled the global economy is mortgage debt. The hands that pulled the string were the visible hands of greedy lenders and the invisible hand of markets structured to pursue profits over human welfare. About debt and debt relief, bankruptcy and poverty, Jesus has a great deal to say.

In fact, Jesus’ entire ministry was a radical program for debt relief, what I call the planks in the platform for a commonwealth of God. I will go even further: debt relief defined the very meaning of his role as the Christ/Messiah. And his teachings and actions relating to poverty and debt relief are so extensive that it would takes weeks to discuss it all. So I will return to this theme over and over as the economic crisis grinds on, as it grinds down workers and homeowners, the sick and the poor.

With Chrysler and GM declaring bankruptcy and getting mega-help from the federal government while people I know are trying to scrape together the money needed just to file ($1,500) without even a rag of vinegar to put to their lips, I feel bankruptcy is the place to start. Also, there is no more exciting place to start in the teachings of Jesus than the Beatitudes, which are all about bankruptcy law. And one of the reasons they are so exciting is that virtually no one seems to recognize that they are about bankruptcy—and inheritance law—even though the word ‘inherit’ appears prominently in several. Rather, the Beautitudes are always presented as conveniently vague sayings of spiritual comfort, when in fact they are unconvienently concrete prescriptions for legal practice. (It’s useful to remind ourselves that Jesus’ religion was, in fact, a legal framework.)

Next week, I’ll start with the first one, whose real meaning is always eviscerated by the usual translation: “Blessed are the meek,  for they shall inherit the earth.” Once you know enough about legal terminology in the Bible, a better translation becomes clear:

“Blessed are the those who have been legally disenfranchised because they have lost their family’s portion (farm) to foreclosure and therefore can no longer represent themselves before the gate (in court), for they shall reinherit their farm and be restored to their status as elders/landowners.”

That will require some unpacking, as you can imagine. Meanwhile, I recognize that I have made some other radical claims not directly related to bankruptcy that I will also have to address—especially, that debt relief defines Jesus’ role as Christ.

I will do this soon, as well. The claim rests on the only passage in which Jesus declares openly what his mission is, Luke 4:18-19:

The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed (christ, in Greek; messiah in Hebrew) me to BRING GOOD NEWS TO THE POOR (OPPRESSED–same word in Hebrew), to bind up the broken-hearted (idiom for those how have lost their inheritance, that is, gone bankrupt), to proclaim (evangelion) release to the captives (debt slaves working out their debt with labor), and release to the prisoners; and to proclaim the year that Yahweh favors (the Jubilee, in which, every 50 years, are debts are cancelled, all debt slaves are set free, and all families are returned to their family farms).

I have used the original passage which Jesus is quoting here, Isaiah 61:1-2, rather than the version in Luke. Luke could only read Greek and so he had to use the Septuagint, the Greek translation in circulation in the 1st Century, where as Jesus would probably not have read Greek and would have used either a Hebrew version or one in Aramaic.

More on this incredible passage later. This is really the cornerstone of the commonwealth of God, the foundation for the planks in its platform, so it deserves a full treatment in good time.