A friend reminded me awhile back that when the Pharisees were trying to trick Jesus in order to entrap him during that last week of his earthly life, he finessed their own entrapment.
The question the Pharisees raised was simple: Is it, or is it not, lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?
Maybe, so as not to incite those followers of Jesus who gathered around him, or possibly thinking that they could lure Jesus into a lax response, the Pharisees couched their question in complimentary rhetoric (“Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one, for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us then …”).
But their intent was defiantly devious.
Jesus exposed that defiant purpose by asking the Pharisees for an object of show-and-tell. He asked them for a coin that could be used to pay the tax.
They produced a denarius, a small silver coin of the empire with the image of the emperor imprinted on it. Surely a no-brainer for the Pharisees!
But after all their experience with Jesus, shouldn’t they have known he was setting them up? Shouldn’t they have noticed on their coin the graven image of the emperor who claimed divinity?
Might it not have been a better strategic move to dig into their purses and produce a coin of Jewish currency (permitted at the time for usage in Judea by the Roman rulers), and acknowledge that, yes, it would need eventually to be converted into Roman currency for tax payment but that its source and value rested in the community of their faith?
Would that not have shown who they believed they were and, at the same time, served as a defiant statement of protest against the imperial rule of Rome?
But these righteous Pharisees unthinkingly revealed instead just the opposite: capitulation to the empire and its emperor, thereby violating the foundational law about having no other gods – or the graven images of those gods – before the one God of their faith.
So there was no confusion where they actually stood when Jesus answered their question: “Give, therefore, to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Pharisees, just by your choice of coinage you reveal your capitulation and disclose whose possession you really are.
Our American capitulation is slightly different, but still capitulation.
Our coinage places before us the images of our national heroes – heroes because they represent for us the ideals not of monarchy and imperialism but the ideals of our political democracy at its core: of both freedom and equality.
Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, JFK – each in their own way give testimony to what we say we believe as our American declaration: that the Creator of all endows each of us equally with the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Our Constitution, moreover, provides the means to enable this kind of political democracy to govern all other aspects of our public life without undue interference in our private lives.
That’s why we pledge allegiance to the flag of the country, not indiscriminately and not the country right or wrong, but because the nation itself is supposed to stand for something: both liberty and justice for all.
Yet the reality has become something very different, which represents our capitulation to something other than our founding ideals.
What we increasingly hold as civically sacred is not just liberty at the expense of justice and equality, but also a particular kind of liberty – economic liberty – at the expense of everything else.
And the consequences of our capitulation to undiluted capitalism? A new despotism with imperial aims, greater economic inequality and resulting injustices on virtually every front that diminishes human flourishing and the sustainable health of the planet.
A thoroughgoing economic democracy – blending freedom and shared well-being – no longer serves to enable and support political democracy; American politics now serves American capitalism and its global reach.
Isn’t this what “Occupy Wall Street” gives voices to, even if not in a terribly focused way?
The capitulation of American Christianity is even more grievous, as it joins in the idolization of the graven image of capitalism, making the creating and sustaining and redeeming God, revealed in and demonstrated by Jesus, the slave of so-called “free (unregulated) markets.”
In this situation, we could just as well mint some new coins to fit our new capitulated reality.
The alternative is to find new and effective ways to demonstrate both civically and religiously our resistance to the disturbing inversion that has occurred and our resolve to answer Jesus’ question to the Pharisees more thoughtfully and faithfully.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.