Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s

When the scribes and chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people.

So they watched him and sent spies who pretended to be honest, in order to trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor. So they asked him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are right in what you say and teach, and you show deference to no one, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But he perceived their craftiness and said to them, ‘Show me a denarius. Whose head and whose title does it bear?’ They said, ‘The emperor’s.’ He said to them, ‘Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were not able in the presence of the people to trap him by what he said; and being amazed by his answer, they became silent.

- Luke 20:19-26

I consider this to be a rather interesting passage, coming as it does so closely to the cleansing of the temple, in which Jesus condemned the money changers and sellers. Once again, we're dealing with the feisty Jesus, who's so articulate in his own defense against those who are trying to trap him in order to remove him from the scene, to get rid of his presence in their midst.

I read in commentary that this particular question is a trap, because if Jesus answered either way - in the way it was intended to be answered - he'd have been condemned by one group or another, caught between the Roman authorities and the Jewish people. If he answered "yes" it would turn the people against him, a "no" would bring a charge of treason from the Roman governor. But Jesus finds the middle way - his articulate alacrity once again bringing down the traps set by others. He does not give them what they want. As his interlocutors state themselves, Jesus "shows deference to no one, but teaches the way of God in accordance with truth." Jesus will not bend truth to suit what people want to hear him say, nor to "get along." There is a line that is drawn, something for which he is willing to stand up. It's also a poetic understanding of the gospel itself, because this issue of the image on the coin is precisely the reason for the existence of the money changers in the temple in the first place.

Commentary also reminds me of the importance of understanding image in the sense of persona. What belongs to Caesar is Caesar's, what belongs to God is God's. I am reminded that the problem for Christians comes when the state (or any other worldly power) may demand of us the things that belong to God. Jesus here teaches a middle way, in which there is no conflict between one interest and the other. But we know that soon, this line will also be crossed. Jesus' purpose is not a nationalist one, but a spiritual one. He will be loyal to God, and not render to others the things that are God's, and he will pay the price for this as well. But that price has a purpose, and it yields the greatest fruit. I think we should remember, when making such choices ourselves, that the goal of a spiritual life is to render unto God what is God's - and if there is a conflict seemingly between interests, it is to God we need to turn in prayer and discernment to understand the way forward. It's not through laws and rules, axioms or maxims - but this is where (in my opinion) the judgment of the heart in questioning and seeking in prayer has to rule.

In the meantime, we must remember Christ's strength in this pursuit. He teaches ways that constantly surprise, and yet always with fidelity to the purpose for which he is here, for which he has been sent. In prayer, we seek the creativity, originality, discernment and understanding he shows here in his answer. May we always find a middle way, outside of the "box" in which anyone tries to put us. Either way, we hope to understand what it is that we must stand up for, and when it is crossing the line to "go along."

Commentary reminds me, as well, that we each bear an image within ourselves of who we are to be in relation to God, of the person who is a creation of God, uniquely within us. We each bear the image of God. We must remember our fidelity to this internal image and reality. This is rendering unto God what is God's, and standing up for our true identity, our purpose.

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