Rendering Unto The Pulpit

I have to preach Sunday (less than a week after the Canadian elections which take place tomorrow and less than 3 weeks before US elections) on the “Render unto Caesar/Render unto God” passage from Matthew’s Gospel.  (Matthew 22 for those who like to read these things at home).

I found this series by Loren Rosson helpful in terms of reading the history of how the passage has been interpreted.  [Answer:  Just about any way to support pretty much any ideology you can come up with].  Rosson working off the studies of social scientific criticism of the Bible argues that Jesus shames the Pharisees by forcing them to bring forth a coin (see pic above).  The coin would have had the image of Caesar described as “Son of God” on the coin.  By having the Pharisees and Herodians (those who supported the monarchy under Herod the Great and his descendents), Jesus forces them to show that they hold an idolatrous image on their bodies, violating the Commandments (“no graven image”).  Rosson thinks Jesus’ reply is essentially something along the lines of Give Caesar back his dirty money (which we don’t recognize)” without having to come out against Roman taxation–which is what the Pharisees were hoping to trick Jesus into so they could get him killed according to the story.

Rosson holds that Jesus is a millenarian prophet–i.e. he thought the end of the world was coming/literal kingdom on earth to replace it–a view I’m not totally sold on.  [I’m pretty agnostic on the entire Historical Jesus Quest to begin with it should be noted]. So for whatever it’s worth, even within Historical Jesus studies, I’m less than entirely convinced of the millenarian reading.  If pushed, I think I would say that apocalyptic means somethign more like (as Crossan I think put it) end of world rather than end of the world.  That means, end of the constructs as we understand them.

The way the millenarian prophet route works is that it allows Jesus to not recognize the legitimacy of the Roman occupation without being a Zealot–i.e. one who attempts to overthrow the Romans via force.  Jesus thinks the angels of God are coming on the clouds to wipe out the foreign infiltration so there is no need for human armed struggle.

But I’m still not really sure what to preach on.  Even if Rosson’s reconstruction is accurate (and who would ever know for sure) it doesn’t offer much in the way for us today.  Maybe the gap between a Roman imperial-Jewish agrarian society and our modern liberal democratic individualist society is too wide to make anything of (at least) this reading.

I’m thinking of returning to the text of the Our Father as something that would give the believer for our day a better “political program” as it were.  Bread and Forgiveness are what the prayer asks for–daily bread (like manna for the Jews in the Wilderness) is the first sign of the coming of the kingdom according to the Our Father.  In Rabbinic tradition, in the messianic age, manna will return again to fall to the earth.

By focusing on this thread, I think it helps move away from one of two major pitfalls to exegeting this text:  1)Jesus was apolitical and was only interested in conversion of the heart  1a)the Kingdom is so otherworldly as to be all after death  and/or 2)Jesus’ kingdom is to be equated with a human earthly political movement 2a)A human/earthly political party is to be the primary means whereby the kingdom of God is initiated.

There are other variations of these basic tendencies, e.g.  1b)Tridentine/Vatican I equation of the Kingdom with the Roman Catholic Church (as sovereign over the political institutions of the earth).

Or possibly a third variation:  3)Jesus as Modernist Philosopher who upholds the modern European nation-state and cultural/political hegemony.

#2/2a you see in Sarah Palin’s dominionist tendencies.

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