The Jews are a uniquely trampled-upon people.
They are history’s sufferers-in-chief. As one global empire after another sought to control the land of Judea—the strategic land bridge between Africa, Europe, and Asia—it was the Jewish people who suffered most. Owing to their position as the world’s perpetual underdog, the Jews became champions of social justice and consummate visionaries of a world beyond the imaginary capacity of what the Apostle Paul called the “principalities and powers.”
If you got nothing else from this series, I hope you see that the project of that rabbinic Jew from Galilee we know as Jesus was not to position us for where we go when we die, but to fulfill the Jewish dream of how good societies are arranged while we live. The gospel is about broad human flourishing, and it cannot be explained divorced from the global empires that subjugated the people who wrote the Bible.
To make my case, I’ve taken you all over the Bible and stressed the earthy significance of recurring literary signifiers like “gospel,” “kingdom,” “Jesus is Lord,” “Messiah,” “Son of Man,” “King of the Jews,” and even “Armageddon.” I’ve tried to articulate the great power in the more humble, ordinary, and even boring parts of the Bible (think Ruth). And I’ve tried to give necessary context to understand parts of the Bible that might be lost on readers who aren’t ancient middle eastern Hebrew slaves.
Critical to the motivations of those who wrote the Jewish Bible is the question: what do we need to do so that we quit being destroyed and conquered and losing everything we have to the self-centered ambitions of these global empires?
Over many centuries, various movements and developments within Judaism answered that question differently. These responses often found their inspiration in the literary and cultural achievements of their neighbors and, in particular, the various empires who subjugated them. You see this within the Old Testament: The writer of Deuteronomy had different ideas on this question than the writer of Ruth; the writer of Nahum had different ideas on this question than the writer of Jonah; the writer of Leviticus had different ideas on this question than the writer of Psalm c40 v6. Some streams of thought emphasized that Yahweh would come to the defense of the Jews only if they maintained fidelity to the temple regulations and sacrifices. Others emphasized social justice and explicitly downplayed the importance of the temple. Others sought to exclude foreigners from the assembly, while others welcomed foreigners. Some thought that the Jews would have to take up the sword in a final apocalyptic battle.
And these different lines of Jewish thought continued to develop and evolve between the Old and New Testament.
Which gets me back to the Jewish-Roman War that started this obnoxiously long series of essays—the war that was principally responsible for the fact that we have the written story of Jesus. This was a tax revolt. It was humiliating enough that the Romans had conquered and subjugated Israel; it was unbearable that they forced the Jews to pay the imperial tax that supported the very military that kept them subjugated. It was taxation without representation, so they did what Americans celebrate every July.
Mark tells the story of some Pharisees and Herodians who wanted to trap Jesus. If they could have caught him instructing his disciples not to pay the imperial tax, they could have haled him before Pilate and had him executed. So, they asked him,
“Rabbi, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”
I have no doubt that, before you read this series, you knew Jesus’s clever response. It was indeed clever.
“Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
And they were amazed at him.
If you grew up as I did, you probably understand Jesus’s words as a neat way of saying something that in substance is not super remarkable: Pay your taxes and follow laws. I agree that Christianity is not a religion of lawlessness, but if that is the bare amount you got from this story, you really missed its subtle enduring power. Jesus was too good at what he did to ever say something so one dimensional as “follow laws.”
It turns out, Jesus took this question about taxes and laid out one of the essential tenets of his whole ministry: Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s. This sentence is Jesus’s answer to the whole Jewish project of how to the defeat the empire. It is where the whole Bible had been heading since it began in Eden. And this powerful, yet brilliantly sneaky quote is made all the more interesting by the fact that Mark places it within a dispute about taxes—the very thing that led to the war that led to the devastation that led to the Gospel of Mark in the first place. When the story was read aloud for the first time after the war, I promise you they got it. It’s a simple line. It’s a clever line. But it is a heavy line, and I love it.
Because when you start to think about what belongs to Caesar, all you have to do is start looking around.
In Part 11, I wrote about the Iron Triangle of Herod, Pilate, and Caiaphas. I wrote about the mutually beneficial relationship of the concentrated economic powers, war powers, and religious powers. If you read Jesus’s command for all it’s worth, at the heart of the Jesus movement is his followers giving that system away. Rabbi Jesus tells us to give back our systems that advance a small few at the expense of many. He tells us to give back to Caesar our desire to inflict violence back on those who harm us. His teaching reflects what should be too obvious by now: that the world isn’t made peaceful by blowing up bad people. He tells us to give back our religious systems that merely reinforce Caesar’s triangle. Those things aren’t God’s. They are Caesar’s.
Imagine surviving a war and hearing that for the first time.
Like EVERYTHING in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’s response to the question is a prophetic critique of both sides of the war. On the one hand, Mark clearly portrayed Jesus as condemning the Jew’s violent tax revolt. That message would not have been missed. But on the other hand, if you place the story within the stories of the people who survived the war, Jesus’s response to the Pharisees was a message of hope: If you will give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, you will finally be rid of Caesar. You will be rid of the thing for which you started and lost in war.
Have I ever told you that the Bible is sharp?
And it speaks loudly to those who today might consider themselves part of the “Resistance.” It speaks loudly to those who see a world gone wrong and dream about a world made right. Imagine if the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated in his Letter from Birmingham Jail that African Americans take to the streets with clubs. Imagine if when Nelson Mandela in 1990 left Victor Verster Prison, he declared to the large crowd that black Africans must arm themselves with machetes and fight back against apartheid?
That would have been the pursuit of justice by the very reviled system already mastered by the powerful. It wouldn’t have gotten rid of the ways of Caesar, but only perpetuated them. In perhaps more tangible terms, it would have been a human disaster. It would have been the story of suffering I told you in Part 1.
But, instead, Rev. Dr. King Jr. and Mandela’s deputy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, knew their Hebrew prophets and knew the prophetic tradition out of which came Jesus the Messiah. The struggle for civil rights remains unfinished, but millions of people today are far better off because these leaders were brave enough to give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s.
Every movement that is courageous enough to see beyond the present power structure must also be brave enough to see beyond the present means of obtaining power. Those movements that embrace violence in its various forms always end poorly. You could say, “those movements that live by the sword die by the sword.” When you open your Bible and read somewhere that Jesus forgave people of their sins, the big story was not that they would be pure enough on some future judgment day so they could hang out in the clouds with his dad. The big story is that Jesus had broken down the thing that separated people.
You are reading about the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Jesus’s first words of the new world of his resurrection were “Peace be with you.”
The followers of Christ are to be a peaceable people. In the second century, it was their peaceable nature that made the Jesus Movement explode with new followers. Giving back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and instead being a peacemaker is how we tangibly realize the imaginative literary painting at the end of Revelation when Heaven comes down to Earth. It is how we win.
Blessed, then, are the peacemakers.
When I started this project, I expected about six parts. This being part twelve, I hope this wasn’t terrible. Nevertheless, I’m ready to call it and move on to the next thing.