Tuesday, June 2, 2015

What Do We Give to the Emperor? Or, Jesus Is Into Coinage Now

"Sestertius - Vespasiano - Iudaea Capta-RIC 0424" by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sestertius_-_Vespasiano_-_Iudaea_Capta-RIC_0424.jpg#/media/File:Sestertius_-_Vespasiano_-_Iudaea_Capta-RIC_0424.jpg
An example of a denarius - hover for more info

The Scripture from today's Pray As You Go meditation is the well-known one where the Pharisees ask Jesus about paying taxes. Jesus very deftly asks for a coin and asks whose face is on it. After some rhetoric, he delivers the well-known line "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and give to God the things that are God's" (if you feel moved to read the whole passage, follow this link).

Many commentaries that I have heard about this passage have to do with worldly things going to worldly powers, while our hearts and spirits should be dedicated to God. I have also heard commentaries that have to do with the nature of giving itself (in fact, the meditation that I linked to above suggests one such approach). But as I was listening to the meditation, I had a realization: one way or the other, Jesus is acknowledging that there are multiple Lords that have authority over us as humans.
Okay, let me first back up and give some concepts in order to seek clarity. The first thing that I think is worth remembering is that Jesus' socio-political movement was radical. The Emperor of Rome demanded obedience from conquered people and he was also esteemed to be a god himself. So for Jesus to be saying that one set of things that people had were due to the emperor and a different set (more like a state of being) was due to God was a big deal. It was subversive. It was not what the Romans wanted to have happen. 

Another piece I offer to you is what I mean when I say "lord." In Church, many of us will attribute prayers to "Lord God," or "Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." Those uses of "lord" indicate that we are attributing some kind of authority to God and/in Jesus Christ. Well, in Christ's time that same function of "lord" was used to attribute offerings to the emperor. So when I say that there are multiple lords that have authority over us as humans, what I mean is that, in Christ's time, there were all sorts of valences of authority that held sway over the lives of ordinary people. Jesus was all about upsetting that system of authority. And even now ordinary people have a whole system of what group of people or which person have authority over different parts of our lives. 

Do you think that seems right? Or do you think I'm full of it?

One of my favorite books is Neil Gaiman's American Gods. It's quite the story of warfare and intrigue played out by supernatural beings and told from the perspective of an everyman character named Shadow. But the aspect that I want to highlight from this book is that way that it seems "gods" come into being; in the book, these supernatural beings subsist on the adoration of people. So there is the pantheon on of-world gods that came to America through the belief of immigrants. But there's a secondary pantheon of gods who have sprung into being from the actions and beliefs of newer generations. These ultra-modern gods, rather than having names like Odin or Loki, Athena or Hephaestus, had names like Mr. Town and Mr. Road;  The Technical Boy and Media.

So how does Neil Gaiman's book relate to Jesus' proclamation on coinage? What I'm trying to highlight is that anything that holds absolute influence over your life can be called a "lord" in the sense of authority that I've described. Some of this authority is a good thing. For example, the influence of my wife and of my parents on my life, I think these are good things to have in my life. But the influence that magazines have on body image, the influence that popular music has on the material priorities of our culture; these and other kinds of lords are things that should be noticed more. And I think each of us have to decide how much authority we're going to give to each of these. 

In this way, I think Jesus' words have everything to do with how we order our lives now. But I don't think the things we give to each lord are near as cut and dried and we might hope they would be.

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What do you think about when you read this story from Scripture? Do you have any experience of "lords" or authorities holding sway over your life that you would rather not have? Please start a dialogue in the comments below! Otherwise, you can join with me in conversation on Twitter or Facebook! Additionally, you can subscribe to my blog by email with the subscription bar in the navigation menu on the right-hand side of this page, and/or send me a friend request/follow me to make that social connection and participate in a deeper dialogue that way. Thanks!