The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.

 

The Empire Cannot Love You

What belongs to Caesar?

by Russell Rathbun

Gospel Reading: Matthew 22:15-22

For Sunday, Oct.16 , 2011: Year A—Ordinary 29

In the first chapter of Genesis, the Torah teaches that God made Adam, and the human race, in the image of God. What does this mean?

Sanhedrin Sez…

The ancient rabbis taught:

Adam, the first human being, was created as a single person to show forth the greatness of the Ruler who is beyond all rulers, the Blessed Holy One. For if a human ruler [like Caesar, the Roman Emperor who was the ruler in the time and place of the Rabbi’s writing] mints many coins from one mold, they all carry the same image, they all look the same. But the Blessed Holy One shaped all human beings in the Divine Image, as Adam was…and yet not one of them resembles another. (Sanhedrin 38a)

The rabbis drew an analogy between the image a human ruler, Caesar, puts upon the coins of the realm, and the image the Infinite Ruler puts upon the many “coins” of humankind.

Limited Uniformity

The very diversity of human faces shows the unity and infinity of God, whereas the uniformity of imperial coins makes clear the limitations of the power of an emperor.

The Emperor, or the Empire, or the Masters of The Universe (to quote Tom Wolfe) or the Money guys/image makers—are limited. They are limited in their power.

Pledging Allegiance

Pledging one’s allegiance to the empire by consuming everything one is asked to consume or thinking everything one is told to think, choosing between red and blue, will not help you to love your neighbor, know who you neighbor is, will not help you to become the person you were meant to be, give you peace or contentment.

The empire does not have the power to do anything like that. The empire cannot love you.

Reconciling Creation

Empire and power seeking always looks the same, but the continuing creation of God is both unified and diverse. The limitless possibilities unfold in the continuing of God’s creation by the life and lives he has minted.

Sometime this ongoing creation stumbles, produces oppression and violence, but there is nothing that has come into being that has not come into being the creator of life or the Word spoken into the world. There is also nothing the will not be reconciled by God. So, empires, oppression, the disenfranchised and the pursuers of power will all be reconciled to God’s self.

Pledge to Consume

Pledging ones allegiance to the empire by consuming everything one is asked to consume or thinking everything one is told to think, choosing between red and blue, will not help you to love your neighbor, know who you neighbor is, will not help you to become the person you were meant to be, give you peace or contentment. The empire does not have the power to do anything like that. The empire cannot love you.

 The Hardest Question

When Jesus tells the Pharisees, render to Caesar what is Caeser’s and to God what is God’s, it is a clever answer, it gets him out of the trap, but I am not exactly sure what it means. All that is, is God’s unfolding creation, being reconciled to God’s self, through God’s self. So, what belongs to Caesar?


Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.

Comments

  1. Leslie Clark says:

    “For if a human ruler [like Caesar, the Roman Emperor who was the ruler in the time and place of the Rabbi’s writing] mints many coins from one mold, they all carry the same image, they all look the same.”

    OMG(osh) Russell, thank you so very much for sharing that quote from the Sanhedrin, it completely voices thoughts that have been rattling around in my head for years about this passage.

    On another but similar vein…are you aware that in 2008 coins were found around the rubble of the Temple Mount, one being the half shekel minted in the 60/70 AD Jewish rebellion? It was meant to replace the (blasphemous but still used) Tyrian half shekel which bore the image of Hercules on one side, which was the required coin for paying the Temple tax!!!

    Human beings are a mess.

  2. Mark says:

    Something interesting happened at our Wednesday Morning in the Word lectionary Bible study this week (http://www.flcwinona.org/Wed-in-the-Word-.html). Despite the charge of hypocrisy that is leveled against the Pharisees there was some genuine sympathy for the position that the Pharisees were in when they brought the Herodians along to trap Jesus.

    We talked about the overwhelming power and influence of the Roman empire and how various groups of Jews tried to accommodate themselves to that power in order to both survive and remain faithful to God. The Herodians capitulated and benefitted from the Roman economy. The Essenes disappeared into the desert. The Sadducees retreated into the perceived comfort and safety of Temple rituals where they could exercise control and retain power. The Essenes and the Sadducees didn’t depend on the Roman coin. The Zealots resisted with the sword and refused the Roman coin. More than the others, the Pharisees were the ones who tried to have it both ways – remain a faithful Jew and somehow live with the daily insults imposed by Rome and its coins. They took their comfort and received the assurance of faith through careful obedience to the Law and no doubt complained about the Roman insult.

    But despite the insult, they carried one of those coins. We well imagined them ending their complaints with “What can we do?” They needed the coins to buy bread and pay their servants.

    That’s where the sympathy kicked in. We all recognize that how often we throw up our hands and say, “What can we do?” We didn’t explore the specifics, but we all know what they are:

    We can’t worship because if we don’t bring our child to the weekend tournament, she won’t be able to be on the team. We can’t tithe because we don’t have anything left over at the end of the month as it is. The list is a long one. In short, we are all caught up in the grasp of the Empire and we don’t know what to do other than offer the sad rhetorical question, “What can we do?”

    So I’m thinking about drawing out that sympathy and perhaps we will here Jesus’ response more clearly. We need not capitulate, escape or take up the sword in our response to the Empire of our day, even as it gains power (as evidenced by the rapidly increasing wealth of the richest people, a stagnant middle and a growing number of people living in poverty). Most of the people in our pews are just doing their best to hang on. What can we do?

    How about starting with a pledge of allegiance to Jesus as the only Lord of our lives?

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