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Sunday, 16 October 2011

What should we return (render) to Caesar?

The gospel reading this week was Matthew 22: 15-22 on the much quoted, but much misrepresented passage on "rendering to Caesar".  The comment by Jesus on paying imperial taxation "give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar - and to God what belongs to God" has been frequently used to underwrite a political quietist stance in which a line is drawn between political activity and "religion".

Well, this approach just won't wash for a number of reasons starting from the fact that the distinction between a private sphere of "religion" and a public sphere of politics would have been incomprehensible at the time. To read such a distinction back into the text is anachronistic. We need to read the incident within its historical context. As a Jew, speaking to Jews, Jesus would have been understood to have been reminding his interlocutors of the prior and total claim of God over their lives. The books of Moses and the Prophets, whose authority he held in common with his interlocutors, were devoted to spelling this profound claim out in redundant detail covering the whole of life, from agriculture to food to economics in an arc whose trajectory pushed increasingly to emphasise the central character of the claims of justice and and mercy in walking humbly before God.

So what is going on here?

James Scott in Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts I think helps us get a handle on at least part of what is happening with his study of conflicts between the powerful and the oppressed, and his account of the difference between the onstage, public, and the off-stage roles and the differing accounts offered by both groups. What makes this passage so rare and so interesting is that Matthew offers us in the story an account of what the powerful, though still subordinate groups (remembering that the Romans are in overall charge),  the Herodians and the Pharisees are saying off-stage as opposed to their on-stage performance.

In this on-stage moment, they offer Jesus an opportunity to say in public what they suspect he might be saying as a member of the discontented oppressed class off-stage. What his reply offers is an account of a politics that is theologically unassailable, from their point of view, but is nevertheless quietly subversive of his interlocutors and the stance they have taken in their practice of engagement with the Roman empire.

Jesus' answer while apparently deferring to Caesar, is subversive in that it places people in a position in which they are invited, by implication to consider what it means to "give back to Caesar what is his" as against "giving back to God what is his". It does so by inviting, implicitly, a consideration of the question "what is Caesar's?", a question that, in Caesar's terms, should not even be asked. Such a question brings the possibility of a political and socially critical  discipleship into view. What we owe to Caesar, or the liberal democratic nation-state of Australia, itself aligned to an imperial power, is always, and must always, be open to question against the prior claim to return to God what is God's.

What should we return to Caesar? Not an easy question, but one that should be struggled with continually and communally. We can start our reflection on this question from Jesus' the point that the prior claim is to return to God what belongs to God, a practice which acknowledges that the baseline of the human is filled out for us paradigmatically in the life and teaching, the death and resurrection of Jesus. We learn from him what it looks like to return to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to return to God what is God's.

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