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Weekly Bible Reflection
Matthew's Communities of Justice

Sundays after Trinity (18)

Matthew 22.15-22
: "Creating an alternative Economy"

Begin by using the Bible Study method as outlined
Sharing together

Do we see empire at work in the world today? How? Where? Who? Who is affected?

Reflection on the text

How should Christian communities respond to modern forms of empire? How do we render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s?

This encounter over payment of tax and relationship with the Roman State is found in Mark (12:13-17) and Luke (20:20-26). Here, Matthew uses his source material to help his household communities work out their relationship with the Roman Empire and participation in the tax system. It seems members of Matthew’s households were at odds over this.

Jesus’ enemies seem to have got him cornered. Whichever way he responds he’s going to be in trouble and arouse someone’s anger. But Jesus uses the familiar tactic of responding to a question with a question and turns the tables on his enemies. He asks for a coin used for poll tax purposes. They produce a denarius which bears the image of the Emperor (in value equivalent to a day’s wage - see 20: 1-16). Jesus’ detractors were cornered.

This is the first of three conflicted encounters between Jesus and the Pharisees, Sadducees and priests. It is a tricky passage with at least six major interpretations and here we offer an alternative to the norm for consideration. Any idea that there are two separate spheres of activity, Caesar’s realm (the State) on the one hand and God’s realm (the Church) on the other, is discounted. There would have been no such separation for Jesus’ audience or Matthew’s readers.

In his response, Jesus says ‘give back’ to the emperor what belongs to him and ‘give back’ to God what is God’s (v 21). Jesus calls the legitimacy of the emperor into question. He is asking: Who bears God’s image? To whom do we belong? Where does our ultimate allegiance lie? We are made in God’s likeness so give back to the false god (Caesar) what belongs to him and give yourselves wholeheartedly to God (Yahweh). If God is Lord and Master then Caesar is not.

Jesus dismisses the claims of Caesar and his system of government over all aspects of human life – economic, political, spiritual, etc. Caesar’s is not the ultimate authority. His authority always rests beneath and within the overall authority of God to whom all ‘Caesars’ must give account. The subversive nature of Jesus’ reply is plain. There is no separation of the religious and political spheres. Jesus did not advocate the establishment of God’s kingdom of justice, peace and equality through violence but through the creation of an alternative society. His stance inevitably led to execution.

In today’s world, the notion of living under Empire has not disappeared. We are living with a global empire; under an economic and cultural system characterised by inordinate greed, usury, savage competition, rampant consumption, selfish individualism, extreme violence, resource depletion and environmental degradation. The privileged lifestyles of a very wealthy minority who have engineered the system to their advantage are had at the expense of the global majority, many of whom live on less than a dollar a day. This idolatrous global economic system demands the submission of all to the power of the forces of the god of the Global Market. People are valued not for their humanity but for their material wealth and worth.

Application: some questions for group discussion:
  1. New Testament scholar Marcus Borg maintains that this passage ‘neither claims taxation is legitimate nor gives aid to anti-tax activists. It neither counsels universal acceptance of political authority nor its reverse. But it does raise the provocative and still relevant question: What belongs to God, and what belongs to Caesar? And what if Caesar is Hitler, or apartheid, or communism, or global capitalism? What is to be the attitude of Christians toward domination systems, whether ancient or modern?’

    • Together, identify some of our modern day "Caesars" in addition to those cited by Borg?

    • Describe some of the collisions and conflicts between our cultural "Caesars" and Christian faith.

    • What is your response to the question: what belongs to God, and what belongs to Caesar?

    • In what ways do we modify, reduce or avoid "the profoundly radical nature" of the Way of Jesus?

    • Share some of the faith choices you have made in this area, both failed and successful?

  2. In light of the current global financial crisis, which has been created primarily through human greed and selfishness, should the Christian church now become more intentional about the creation of an alternative economic philosophy and way of life as the people of Israel and early Christian community households did?
    For example, both Israel and the early Christian communities developed a radical alternative economic model which they believed was God-given (e.g. the practice of tithing, having a day of rest, periodic cancellation of debts and return of land and property to the dispossessed, interest free loans, the sharing of resources etc.). In the light of the global economic crisis should we do something similar?

  3. Can you identify groups in society that are already engaged in creating an alternative economic way of life to dominant industrial growth capitalism? What can we learn from them? Should we develop some kind of partnership with them?

  4. What steps might you take as a community to live differently in the light of the unfolding economic crisis that might lead the way out of the era of greed?
Praying Together
  • Spend some time together in worship, acknowledging the God’s central place as the Almighty One and the Lordship of his Son Jesus Christ over all powers, rulers and authorities. You may wish to sing a song such as ‘He is Lord’ and/or read a passage of Scripture such as Colossians 1 verses 15 – 20.

  • Pray for all who suffer under oppressive regimes across the world.

  • Pray for those suffering most from the current global economic crisis and the many forgotten people’s eking out an existence on very small incomes.

  • Pray for the church and its response to the injustices in the global Market.

  • Pray for God to provide guidance as to how you should live as a community of faith more in keeping with Jesus’ vision of justice and equality with sensitivity to the needs of those at the ‘bottom of the global pile’.
More background information
  1. The King James Version translates the Greek word apodidomi as ‘render’ and is to be preferred to ‘give’ found in the New Revised Standard Version because it carries the sense of ‘giving back’.

  2. We can assume that Jesus and his disciples did not use the image bearing Roman money but the Jewish alternative. Coins without human images were minted for use by the people to overcome the problem of handling ‘blasphemous’ Roman currency. The opponents of Jesus were found out to be regularly carrying images of the emperor on their person into the temple.

  3. The tax involved here is the poll tax which people loathed. It was a telling reminder of Roman oppression, every time it was paid. If Jesus had said that it should be paid he would have alienated the people and significantly weakened his power base. If he had supported tax evasion then he was vulnerable to crucifixion on the grounds of treason.

  4. In his “doctrine of the two kingdoms” the Reformer Martin Luther maintained that God rules the world by two means: through the State, his “left-hand” kingdom, and through the Church, his “right–hand” kingdom.

  5. From its very beginnings, the Christian household movement was a ‘counter-imperial’ movement. Jesus catalyzed a movement of the renewal of Israel – a movement over against Roman rule as well as the Jerusalem priestly aristocracy. Paul was establishing ekklesiai, ‘assemblies’ not ‘churches’, that were rivals to assemblies in various Roman cities, and as such were ‘alternative societies’.
    Early Christianity was “a direct and powerful response” to “specific economic and political conditions … a movement that boldly challenged the heartlessness and arrogance of a vast governmental bureaucracy … Theirs was an age when the powers-that-be did not look kindly on anyone who would challenge Roman authority and power, yet that is precisely what the followers of Jesus did when they built their far-flung network of communities of ‘saints … The quest for the kingdom was both a ‘spiritual’ journey and a political response to the ‘kingdoms of men’.
    See Richard Horseley (ed), 1997, Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Rome, Trinity Press Int’l. Harrisburg, pp 1 – 11.

  6. The emperor, as ‘the object of elaborate ceremonies of public veneration and the subject of wonderful tales of miraculous birth, charmed childhood, and divine ordination for imperial power – was the larger-than-life figure to whom all the empire’s subjects were trained to look for guidance and to whom every knee was required to bend.’ In contrast the Christian narrative told of ‘a world-redeeming figure who had been born in an obscure hill-country town of Judea – not in an imperial palace on the Capitoline Hill … He gave imaginative voice to an alternative kingdom free from violence, inequality and injustice and intolerant of arrogant boasts and behaviour of emperors and client state rulers.( Horseley, ibid, p. 11).

  7. Horseley says…’the coming of the Kingdom of God meant a revolution in the way people behaved toward each other and their recognition that they should have no Caesars, tetrarchs, centurions, or other overlords above them except for the one God and Creator of the world. In practical terms, that meant rejecting the rule of all powers and returning to the pure covenantal system under which Israelites – and indeed all peoples – would be considered to be brothers and sisters under God.’ (ibid, p. 54)

  8. There is a most helpful address by Prof Prabhu Guptara, entitled "The World Financial System and the Institutionalisation of Greed" on the Work and Spirit website. The address was given at a meeting at St Stephen’s Church Bristol on 9th October 2008. It is in podcast form and can be accessed at Prabhu is currently Executive Director, Organisation Development, at Wolfsberg - a subsidiary of UBS one of the largest banks in the world.


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