Sunday, December 11, 2011

Render unto Caesar

A few weeks ago Martin and I read a well-known story from the book of Luke in the Bible.  To set the scene, it occurred in the week before Jesus was executed, when Jews from all over Israel had gathered in Jerusalem for a religious festival.  Tensions were running high around Jesus - this new religious teacher loved by the crowds but who the religious establisment saw as heretical and deeply dangerous.

This is our story:
The religious leaders sent spies to keep a close watch on Jesus. The spies pretended to be honest. They hoped they could trap Jesus with something he would say. Then they could hand him over to the power and authority of the governor.
So the spies questioned Jesus. "Teacher," they said, "we know that you speak and teach what is right. We know you don't favor one person over another. You teach the way of God truthfully.  Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?"
Jesus saw they were trying to trick him. So he said to them, "Show me a silver coin. Whose picture and words are on it?"
"Caesar's," they replied
 He said to them, "Then give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. And give to God what belongs to God.
 They were not able to trap him with what he had said there in front of all the people. Amazed by his answer, they became silent.

I know this story well and I've puzzled over it for years.  I've read it carefully in context, trying to understand what Jesus was trying to say.  I've even read articles about it, hoping that someone else's reflections would shed light on it.  This time, however, the meaning seemed so obvious that I'm struggling to remember what my problem was with it!

Martin and I are working our way through the book of Luke at the moment.  In recent weeks we've already puzzled our way through two earlier stories about money: the story of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1-14) and the story of three servants who were each entrusted with money while their master was away (Luke 19:11-26).  In the first of these stories, money was referred to as 'dishonest gains' ('wordly wealth' in the translation the links will take you to) and a thing of very little importance.  The point of that story was, if you could be faithful in using such an insignificant thing as money to achieve ends that really mattered, one day you would be given 'true' wealth that would really belong to you and would really last.  In the second story, servants who were able to significantly grow the vast sums of wealth their master had entrusted to them were described, again, as having been faithful in "a very small matter".

So it seems that, in the book of Luke, Jesus is presented as seeing money as a thing of very little importance.  It pales into insignificance beside the 'true wealth' which you get from God.

With that understanding already with us, the meaning of this latest episode seemed clear.  Caesar has put his image on these coins and he's instituted a taxation system: he clearly thinks money matters.  However, we know better: it's a thing of very little importance, and is definitely not to be confused with real wealth.  I think that Jesus is saying: if Caesar wants this silly money stuff, then give it to him - but give what really matters to God.

I find that challenging - not least because I don't see money as being of little importance at all.  Instead, I manage my money very carefully, very much acting like it matters a lot.  In addition, I live in a society where we struggle to value anything that doesn't have a dollar value.  But here is Jesus saying that money is a profoundly unimportant thing.

I guess that also sheds light on what he says in the famous 'sermon on the plain', also in the book of Luke.  Jesus says there that if someone steals from you, you musn't demand your property back - you shouldn't even stop them from taking more of it!  That makes more sense when you understand that, contrary to what you might think, the things that they can take this way don't really matter all that much and aren't really worth fighting for.

Something I find really exciting about this insight is that way that it has been built up as we've made our way through the book of Luke.  I'm so appreciating working my way through the Bible in whole books, rather than in scattered passages or verses taken from many different places.  These books are, after all, books.  The stories within them are episodes in a bigger story, not just entities in their own right, and Martin and I have been finding it immensely rewarding to read them as such :-)