A Godly Conspiracy Theory – Matthew 22 and the “Occupy Movement”

I think most of us love a good conspiracy theory – whether political, economic, or just plain spooky. Trudy Lebans, rector of St. Laurence, Coquitlam, proposed in her homily this morning that today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 22 – proclaimed around the world, let’s remember and coinciding with the “Occupy” protests spreading from continent to continent –  might be kind of a godly conspiracy theory. That’s certainly worth thinking about.

The kingdoms of this world – particularly the political and economic ones – are continually at odds with the Gospel. Marcus Borg reminds us that the ‘kingdom of Pharoah’ is never too far away from us, challenging us to proclaim the radical message of social and economic justice which is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching.

Complementing Borg’s take on Matthew 22 is the commentary of Anglican bishop and teacher, NT Wright whose visit to Trinity Western University some months back was documented in nwnaglicanblog. Wright’s reading of Matthew 22 is a good reminder to us of the powerful teaching of Jesus about the Reign of God coming among us. Great food for thought during this time when, simultaneously around the world, people are gathering in the streets to raise some very pertinent questions about economic and social justice. Therefore, I share with you a few paragraphs from Wright’s comprehensive work Jesus and the Victory of God. Please take some time to contemplate.

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Jesus’ implicit claim, that through his own work YHWH was at last becoming king, invited the question: how does this kingship relate to the rule of Caesar? His further claim (made explicit in the Temple-action), that he himself was the true king, gave this question sharp focus. Would this be the moment when Jesus would be smoked out of his hiding, and reveal himself as a real revolutionary at last? Or would he in the end line up with the ruling elite in their heavily compromised liaison with Rome?

Jesus’ Temple-action is bound to have raised questions like these. His onlookers’ minds were not tabulae rasae. Nor were they those of modern western democrats. They were stocked, kitted out one might say, with stories and symbols about kingdom, slavery, battle and freedom. Among the older stories, of course, there was the exodus: Pharaoh’s unjust rule led to the great moment of liberation. Among the not so old was the Maccabaean revolt: when the pagans seemed to have won, Israel’s god acted. Among the very recent was the revolt of Judas the Galilean: loyal Jews should not pay taxes to Caesar, since they have no master, no despotes, but YHWH himself. The two Judases, Maccabaean and Galilean, provide the echo-chamber in which questions of kingdom and freedom such as this brief exchange must be heard. Temple, taxes, revolution and Messiahship all went together. Here (the onlookers would think) was another Temple-cleanser, another Galilean.

The question of the tax-money was therefore not simply a trick, designed to frame a charge against Jesus but otherwise unrelated to his Temple-action. Jesus’ reply, likewise, should not be read simply as a cunning avoidance of the question, still less as a way of shifting the discussion from ‘politics’ to ‘piety’. Tax and Temple, Caesar and God, are the subject matter….

Jesus’ pithy reply encapsulates the larger issues of his own doubly revolutionary kingdom-agenda. He began by requesting one of the relevant coins. This took the initiative away from his questioners, forcing them to reveal their own hand first. The coin bore an image and superscription which were, from a strict Jewish point of view, blasphemous. The image was prohibited…and the superscription proclaimed Caesar in divine terms, specifically as the son of a god. Jesus’ questioners were thus themselves already heavily compromised by possessing such an object.

Jesus then responded with the famous two-line aphorism: give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God. This has often been taken to imply a neat division of loyalties: state and church, Caesar and God, held in a delicate tension. Alternatively, the saying has been read as a wry, ironic comment, or, indeed, as a direct challenge to zealotry. But there is reason to suppose that both parts of the aphorism are more subtle, and more closely linked to the issues of Temple, Messiah, and Jesus’ whole kingdom-announcement, than those options allow.

Jesus hearers would have been expecting some kind of signal that he was indeed in favour or revolution. It might be cryptic, but in many political situations coded statements are all that one can offer. I suggest that Jesus deliberately framed his answer in terms that could be heard as just such a coded statement, with which he neatly refused the either-or that had been put to him and pointed to his own kingdom-agenda as the radical alternative…..He was not advocating compromise with Rome; but nor was he advocating straightforward resistance of the sort that refuses to pay the tax today and sharpens its swords for battle tomorrow. Give to God what is God’s evokes the call to worship the one true god, echoed in psalm and prophecy throughout Israel’s tradition….Give to God and to God alone, the divine honour claimed blasphemously by Caesar. This is not a summons to a detached piety. It is a call to renounce paganism and to worship and serve the true god an no one else.

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Indeed, our job is to act in faith and hope that ‘the kingdoms of this world’ will become the ‘kingdom of our God and of His Christ’. And all of us as followers of Jesus Christ are called to our part – whether we personally choose to participate in the ‘Occupy’ movement or not.

Reference: N.T. Wright. Jesus and the Victory of God. Augsburg Fortress, 1996, pages 502-507.

Steve Bailey is a deacon at St. Laurence, Coquitlam, and one of the blogmasters of nwanglicanblog. Your comments and thoughts are always welcome. If you wish to submit for blog publication, send your articles to steve_bailey@telus.net.

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