Wednesday, November 12, 2008

"Render unto Caesar": Socialist Impulses in Luke-Acts (Part 7)

It has been a while since I have posted in this ongoing series on the biblical socialism of Jesus and the Jerusalem Church as presented by or produced by Luke-Acts. Yet now I want to look at a slight digression. While Zacchaeus seemed a departure, but ended up being more of a compromise to illustrate a larger point as well as a clear breakdown in logical consequences of Zacchaeus's actions--that he could not become rich by the actions he took--today I would like to look at a another passage about taxes that may present a challenge: the "render unto Caesar" passage of Luke 20:21-26.

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 thigns that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." And they were not able in the presence of the peopel to trap him by what he said; and being amazed by his answer, they became silent. (NRSV)

This is one of a series of "entrapment" questions. The next one is by Sadducees trying to find a logical problem in the resurrection based upon levirate marriage. But this current passage on the denarius is often discussed in terms of whether Christians should pay taxes or not, and they read it as a ringing endorsement. I am not so sure. The most interesting part of this passage to me is that Jesus had to ask for a denarius. Did he not have one himself? In the progression of the story of Luke-Acts, probably not! Jesus, we have seen time and again, has insisted that to become his follower, you must sell all that you own and give the proceeds to the poor. In that instance, they have nothing to "render unto Caesar." In fact, only his opponents have the coin with the figure of the emperor on it. This, in fact, is double-trouble. 1) as noted, as a follower of Jesus, you wouldn't have any money, you cannot follow Jesus and keep your property, you cannot serve both God and Mammon, but 2) it has an IMAGE on it. Images of human (and animate) figures are prohibited in this period as an "engraved image." Jews at different times and places have interpreted this strictly and loosely. In a few hundred years from Jesus' time, synagogues would pop up with clear figural representations of biblical figures and even a Helios (sun-god) image in zodiacal mosaics! But in Jesus' time, it seems this was more strictly kept. Even Herod's palaces keep to geometric and floral designs and does not have any engraved images of animate figures. To be carrying around engraved images (on coins) may have been a problem. Even so, Jesus doesn't make a big deal over this point so much in Luke-Acts (perhaps because Luke's largely Greek audience wouldn't care), but the emphasis is placed upon not having a coin to pay to the emperor.

But this does return us to the serving God versus Mammon. This Mammon, this money, has a face, the face of an emperor. In the eastern Mediterranean, more so than the western portion, emperor worship was prevalent. It was not "enforced" as it was in later centuries, but present nonetheless. In the "emperor cult" would one offer worship, perhaps light some incense, or whatever, to an image of the emperor and a female goddess, Roma, the representation of Rome.

Jesus, however, does not have this coin. Or ANY coin for that matter. Jesus and his followers will not be paying taxes to the emperor, because they do not have anything with his image. This passage, it seems, is meant to complicate, or confuse the question posed. He shifts the grounds of debate, throws the issue right back at his questioners. The result is amazement. In short, much like Socratic method, he has reduced his interlocutor to aporia. They are without recourse. Indeed, for shame! They actually have a coin to give as taxes! Instead, Jesus has recused himself from the entire economic apparatus of the imperium. Just imagine if everyone did that? Perhaps the kingdom of God would break through.


Anonymous said...

Uh, sorry to say but Jesus had money, just that other people carried it. Mary Magdalene was one of a group of wealthy supporters who traveled with him and financed his ministry, according to Luke 8 (I think). One of the gospels talks about Judas being in charge of the money.

Nice try, but no cigar for you.


Jared said...

No cigar for me? I don't think so.

Firstly, I am more than happy to find a passage that shows that Jesus had money in LUKE-ACTS. I am not writing about the historical Jesus, but the ideological product of Luke-Acts. If other gospels show a different perspective, that is fine and good. And we can discuss the similaritie and differences in perspective of those gospels.

The fact remains, however, that to follow Jesus, consistently one must sell all that one owns and give ALL the proceeds to the poor. This is not in dispute.

On this passage, you are right. It is entirely possible that Jesus had money, but just not ROMAN money, which is itself a political statement, saying he was not going to give the Roman state apparatus anything.

But you raise an interesting point. I checked Luke 8, and didn't see money there, and, I think Luke-Acts appears consistent in this portrayal--whether Luke-Acts is accurate or not is another question or if Luke-Acts has its own agenda (which is likely). But what if they had money? Is it personal money? Does Jesus and/or his disciples have their own money or even their own property.

It seems to me that the passage you point to actually buttresses the larger point (even if it alters the exegesis of this particular passage) that if they had money, they held it all in common.

Is this socialism? Maybe, maybe not. It may be more like a Kibbutz mentality than anything. But the larger point still stands that the disciples had no private property or personal money.

But, pf, if you can find me a passage in Luke, please forward it. I would be more than happy to discuss it, perhaps discuss complications and inconsistencies, which are always fascinating.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I read your blog post earlier today, but listened to another Bart Ehrman video about history. Your analysis suggests that the way the disciples lived is what is required of a disciple today. The modern nation is not an empire, with an emperor. And certainly in America we do not have kings. While there are some cultures that do subscibe to groupism in this way, they are usually more tribal in mentality. This doesn't have anything to do with discipleship, unless one wants to reconstruct a "biblical type of government" which reconstructionist do hope to do...misguided, I think.

Socialism, even in the modern sense, has problems with deciding on who is to rule in deciding what is the "common good" and how it is to be implemented. It then becomes a ruling class that determines for the "outsiders" what they should or shouldn't be doing with their assests, whether monetary, or otherwise. This is communism in some sense...I cannot agree or adhere to that form of government or type of identification.

I think most Christians (and that included me) are ignorant of most things, just as in Jesus' day...

Jared said...

Angie, you stated this:

"Your analysis suggests that the way the disciples lived is what is required of a disciple today."

I thought it should be clear by now that this is not the case. That there were multiple positions on what Jesus said and did already complicates this. Which Jesus? Which portrayal of disciples? Jesus also most likely kept kosher, did not eat pork, and I still have my bacon.

I think your larger paragraph begins to confuse socialism with Communism. Socialism does not equal totalitarianism. It does not equal Communism on the USSR model. You can have a thoroughly Democratic government and be socialist economically. I do not think that democracy necessarily assumes or is more congenial to one or the other.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I understand your point, but to get everyone on board the same ship of socialistic understanding is a big hill to climb. Perhaps this is what Obama meant when he said that there would be sacrifices that we must stand with him, that we were one nation, etc. Etc...Socialism, then, does become implemented by government and those that run government.

Everyone must agree with what is done with the money,,but with limited resources...such as we see in government (and our own pocketbooks) today in first bailing out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, then Wall Street, now there is talk of automobile makers, the list could go on and one...which priority will win the day...and the "loosers" will have bite the bullet and pay the price for others to get the gravy while they eat whatever is left-over (if there is any)...
Justice could be viewed from two points of view, those who work the most get the most, or those who exist deserve everything that anyone else has...Fairness is not what life is about, otherwise, I "demand" that I am retributed over the fact that I had no father and many other social injustices...we cannot take care of everyone and everything. I am not arguing for ignoring problems, but that we allow freedom to everyone in how they want to "give".
How about government letting the people have choices over how an allotted amount of their own money will be spent (given to several different worhty causes). That would allow not only freedom, but responsible citzenship, without government using it as a cloak to determine for everyone where the money will go and then hide how they get kick-backs because the money "just happened to be spent to the right non-profit"!
Individuals must have a sense of responsiblity for whatever they have, so that they are not controlled by outside sources, which then becomes totalatarinism and communism.
I have lived long enough to know that those who claim they want the "Golden Rule" are demanding it from others, but not doing it themselves...I think it is better to take care of one's own interests...I've tried it both ways...