I read an interview by a prof from UCSB on his new book on religion and politics in America. I tend to quibble about everything, but even reading the short interview I found myself muttering true but…., or oh come on do you even know what you are talking about. But again, I can usually punch holes in just about any series of arguments, which is a skill that is decidedly not conducive to a healthy marriage.

In any case, there was one quote by the author of the book, Thomas Mates, that particularly made my skin crawl:

The principle thing is the idea of being politically active, which Jesus refused to do and Paul didn’t do. All of the key figures in the New Testament are renowned for going to their deaths without putting up a fight. Jesus fought to clean up the church, not city hall. No one is told in the New Testament to beat or join the Romans.

No, no, and a very loud, frustrated NO. Jesus (not to mention Paul) was highly active politically, but we will fail to see how if we assume that politics is always like what we experience in modern, western America. Taking a look at the life of Jesus through first-century eyes, we see a doubly radical political figure whose death was inevitable.

Consider this question: Would Rome (and its delegated officials) be interested in killing a wandering “spiritual leader” who taught about” spiritual realities” and wanted his followers to do “spiritual things?” Of course not. Itinerant spiritual wanderers are about as threatening as a hamster who has no teeth. At worst, he would be mildly amusing.

But Jesus was executed as a threat to the empire, and Rome reserved a special method of death for these types – crucifixion. So the question is, why? What was so political about his teaching?

Take, for example, Jesus’ famous statement (from Matthew 22), “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God’s the things that are God’s.” As separation-of-church-and-state Americans, the meaning seems clear: The political realm is separate from the religious realm. However, we must understand the historical context to really feel the sting of Jesus’ rebuttal.

Jesus was asked whether it was lawful to pay the tax to Caesar. This was a very sore point for the Jews, God’s chosen people, as they were in subjugation to Rome and were forced to pay tribute. During Jesus’ lifetime (6 CE) there was a revolt against Rome, lead by Judas of Galilee, specifically in opposition to a tax census. For you New Testament geeks, this is mentioned by Rabbi Gamaliel in Acts 5. The Romans, doing what they do best, killed a lot of people as they put down this rebellion, which certainly would have been in the collective memory of the people witnessing the life of Jesus.

If Jesus says no, it was not ok for them to pay the tax to Caesar, then they would have a clear admission by Jesus that he was an advocate of Judas of Galilee – which they could use to get him killed by the Romans. If Jesus said yes, however, then he would have committed a certain kind of blasphemy. On the coin in question, written around the face of Caesar Tiberius, would likely have been written: Caesar Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus. That would imply that Caesar was the son of a god and therefore divine – quite the crime within monotheistic Judaism. Also written on the coin was the statement that he was the “High Priest,” which in Roman civil religion, he was.

So Jesus can’t say yes, as that would be agreeing that Caesar was divine and violate the Jewish understanding of who God is, but saying no will get him arrested immediately. So what does he say? “Give me a coin.” Oddly enough, one of his interlocutors has one, and Jesus makes him identify the face on the coin. It was Caesar’s, along with all the titles I mentioned above. So what does Jesus mean when he tells them to give to Caesar what is his, and to God what belongs to him?

Think about it. Caesar is claiming to rule the world, and he holds the title of “divine son of a god.” He claims total dominion. So does God. Jesus’ response forces his questioners to face the reality that these two “realms” aren’t mutually exclusive, and in fact, they are diametrically opposed. This is a very dangerous political statement to make, and one that will likely get you killed if you say it loud enough.

Which leads us to our own times: Who is really in charge around here?

 

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