Jesus, Justice and Monetary Policy

Matthew 22: 15-22

“Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “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, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.”

An apolitical Jesus is a Jesus robbed of his humanity.

An apolitical gospel is a gospel devoid of good news.

An apolitical church is a dispensary of harmless untruths so that its members can have peace of mind and lead a good life – aka: Bokononism.

A currency manipulated according to the interests of the powerful inevitably plunders what little wealth the poor possess.

I was at church all the time as a kid. I hardly ever went in college. I simply lost interest. My life was centered on going to class, watching sports, playing video games and driving drunk people home as part of a student organization at Texas A&M. I still wanted to be a minister, but I could barely drag myself to church but about twice a semester. Too boring. Too early. And since I was driving drunk people home at 4:00 on Sunday morning, I was sleepy. While I still held out hope that church could be a little more meaningful than I had found it at that point in my life, I didn’t share the same outlook for the bible. I honestly did not have much more than an Sunday school understanding of what was even inside it and the more I ran into “bible experts”, which at Texas A&M was once every few minutes, the more I wanted nothing to do with the bible at all.

My first class at Wesley Seminary was Introduction to the New Testament. I was not enthused. Our first assignment was to read the first 102 pages of Jesus, Justice and the Reign of God by some “bible expert” named William Herzog III. Not enthused. Those 102 pages weren’t even about the bible. They were about the multiple failed quests at the reconstruction of “the historical Jesus” in the history of new testament study. We were studying what we didn’t learn, not what we did. NOT ENTHUSED. It was a laborious read. I showed up to class and asked a few friends how they fared in the task. None of them read it. All found it pointless about a quarter of the way through. I was shocked. The reading was hard, but by the end, the laborious reading turned into something so interesting, so awesome, that I read just a few extra pages. All of them.

Inside was a book that destroyed my understanding of the bible. It ruined my conception of Jesus. Gone was good guy Jesus. Gone was self-help bible. Suddenly terminology that I had heard, dismissed and forgotten long ago made sense: “fully human and fully divine.” This was a Jesus who acted human, who cared about human concerns, who actually was…human. I was in love.

One section stood out over the rest. It was a section on when Jesus ran into some Herodians and Pharisees who were just really, really curious about the lawfulness of paying taxes to Rome. Many know the story and many non-christians know the punchline. “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to the Lord what is the Lord’s.” The non-political answer to the story is easy. Some responsibilities are owed to the government and others’ to God. Just so happens that’s what the modern Christian believes anyway. It’s also how we already act. It’s biblically obvious. That Jesus was way ahead of his time.

Except there’s a little problem. Matthew (and Mark) is pretty explicit about the intentions of the Herodians and the Pharisees who ask Jesus the innocent little question about taxes. They are trying to either entrap him or get him arrested and killed or have him be publicly shamed and discredited in front of all of his supporters. This is just one in a line of encounters where questioners attempt to entrap him with the political and religious controversies of the day. First, a little background:

Everybody in scripture comes with history. Every group. Every person. Everyone. The first people to hear this gospel know this background because it’s a part of their culture. We don’t. We have to learn what the interests of the Herodians are and why they would care about taxes. We have to learn why they would be asking a guy like Jesus anyway. The Herodians are supporters of King Herod the Great. That’s the name the Romans gave him. Because the Romans loved him. He brought in the taxes. He kept the peace. He built lots of stuff with the emperor’s name and picture on it. Do those things and Rome will love you. They did. He was the Romans favorite puppet king.

Herod, a gentile who married into a Jewish family so that he could pretend to be a faithful Jew, accomplished all of this by being a brutally violent dictator over the Jewish people. Bringing in taxes to Rome means being really, really good at balancing 1) taking as much from your subjects as possible and 2) making sure that they still have enough so that the productive ones don’t starve to death. Herod was great at it. Keeping the peace meant waging enough war and crucifying enough people to put down any rebellion or potential rebellion. Also it involved keeping the people so poor and politically and socially weak that the organization required for rebellion becomes impossible. Herod was again, great at it. Herod also accomplished building lots of stuff with the emperor’s name on it by either enslaving large sections of the population or destroying their normal means of supporting themselves so that they can be hired at slave wages to build whatever he demanded. That often meant entire towns named after emperors or members of their family. It also meant building military forts to be used for the exact purpose of increasing Herod’s ability to collect taxes or subjugate the people. Building a fort that you know will be used to support the military that will take your money or prevent you from doing anything about it has got to be a pretty terrible feeling. Jesus, by the way, was a landless day laborer who most likely worked these type of jobs. And you thought being a carpenter was quaint. Once again, Herod was great at it.

How do you think the Herodians felt about taxes? The Herodians were paid by Herod, out of the collected taxes. Taxes were great!

The Pharisees did not feel the same. For all the ridiculous ways they are characterized by modern Christians, they weren’t exactly as horrible as the Herodians. The Pharisees weren’t the elite. They were relatively common. They weren’t rich. Many were often poor. They didn’t subvert the faith as the Herodians did. They tried to live it out with every single act possible. Their attempt to follow the law at all times meant that they created new regulations so that they weren’t even in danger of breaking the law. They believed that the nation had sinned and was unrighteous and their current oppression was God’s judgment upon them. If they were faithful enough and righteous enough, God would save them just as God had done in the past. They were looking for salvation from God, trying to live holy lives and trying to convince common people to do the same. Jesus has so many confrontations with them because they were the most like him (and by the time the gospels were written, they were the only real group left). The Pharisees believed that any allegiance to anyone but God was heretical. That allegiance included Rome and Herod.

How do you think the Pharisees felt about taxes? Taxes were paid to an oppressive empire that wantonly broke Jewish law. Taxes were an affront to God!

The Herodians and the Pharisees encounter Jesus and attempt to trap him with the most explosive political issue of the day. The fact that these two groups are joining together should indicate to the reader just how much of a threat Jesus is. Two groups that hate each other now see Jesus as such a dangerous foe that they conspire together for his destruction. First thing they do, is lay it on thick, “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.” You should read this and think “Bullshit.” That’s what it is. They’re daring him to tell the truth. “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

Scenario 1: Jesus says no. It’s not lawful to pay taxes to the emperor. The Herodians will have him arrested for inciting rebellion against the emperor. Jesus will be tortured and crucified along with his supporters.

Scenario 2: Jesus says yes. It’s lawful to pay taxes to the emperor. The Pharisees will shame him in front of his supporters. His supporters are taxed to the point of losing their land, livelihoods and families. Jesus will be exposed as a fraud. They will either abandon him or kill him themselves.

Tell the truth Jesus!

You should know by now that this isn’t a legitimate question. It’s a trap. And if he answers wrong, he’s dead. Jesus has faced several trap questions by various groups before. He always wins. But it’s here that Jesus shows that he’s the master.

“Show me the coin used for the tax.” At these words by Jesus, he’s already won. Jesus knows it. The people know it. The Pharisees know it. The Herodians don’t. The modern reader doesn’t either. (Guess which one we resemble the most?) It’s almost certainly the Herodians who pull the coin out. “We’ve got one right here!” Of course they do. They have money. They have lots of money. Jesus has no money and neither do his supporters – any that they had would have been taxed away or spent on food. The Pharisees never touch money for fear that it could make them unclean. The Herodians do not have any of these problems. The Pharisees are horrified. They’re inside the temple with Roman currency with engraved images of Caesar that claims that the emperor is divine. It’s absolute blasphemy. Jesus, with one question, has separated the two groups joined together to entrap him. They have been shamed.

“Whose head is this, and who’s title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s”

At that point, everybody knew. The Herodians couldn’t claim he said not to pay your taxes, unless they have to expose Herod as believing that not everything belongs to God. The Pharisees couldn’t claim he said that they had to pay their taxes unless they admitted themselves that the taxes belonged to Caesar. The people that have been following Jesus know the game. Jesus has embarrassed the Pharisees and the Herodians, and they are on the winning side. Jesus’s answer is simple. What belongs to God? Everything. If everything, then what belongs to Caesar? Nothing.

William Herzog though, doesn’t stop there. Something actually does belong to Caesar. The coins. Give them back. We don’t need them.

The modern reader simply takes currency for granted. We live in a time and place of relatively stable currency that is well established in our laws and our culture. And it has been an overwhelmingly positive addition to society. It’s much easier and cheaper to pay for something in paper (or plastic) than it is to pay someone in whatever particular skill you have or the fruits of your labor. The costs of exchange dramatically decrease and everyone becomes more wealthy. Imagine paying for health care, insurance, or internet service by barter. I don’t think my internet provider would readily accept biblical interpretation or pastoral counseling as an effective form of payment. They barely accept MasterCard. Currency is awesome.

But one of the reasons currency is awesome is because it fits our economic needs. It’s not at all apparent how people in a subsistence agricultural economy actually benefit from having currency. They don’t buy anything. “A market” as we know it, doesn’t exist. The profit motive is not something that most people would know anything about and if they did, they would most likely find it morally abhorrent. In a functioning subsistence agricultural economy like ancient Israel/Judah, people make pretty much everything they need and if they can’t make it, they obtain it by barter, gifts, or religious/familial obligation. They don’t buy anything. Really ever.

But currency exists. Why? Because it has been introduced by Rome (and earlier oppressive regimes). Rome didn’t do this because they were really nice and sweet. They did it because being paid taxes in currency involves a lot less cost than being paid taxes in agricultural goods. But don’t worry, they’ll take your agricultural goods too. Soldiers gotta eat after all. They also do it because there is a need in a non-functioning subsistence agricultural economy for currency. When Rome seizes your land you have no choice but to become a wage laborer and wage laborers are paid in coin because those doing the paying are Roman beneficiaries. (And they seized land A LOT – If Jesus was from an old established Jewish line and selling your land was not only illegal but impossible, why didn’t he have land? Answer: it was seized by Rome. Guess who’s the biggest landholder in Rome? The emperor.) Currency was extremely beneficial to tyrants and occupiers and was a sign of oppression for local people, especially people who were subsistence farmers.

Herzog claims that Jesus is arguing for demonetizing Roman Palestine. Only one thing belongs to Caesar. His coins with his face on them. He can have them. If this is true, Jesus isn’t just talking about tax policy with clear religious implications and scriptural tradition on which to reference. He’s doing something new. He’s talking about monetary policy. If he is, then biblical interpreters and christian ethicists have a biblical demand and obligation to say something about monetary policy.

The lazy way to do this would be just to claim that Jesus is against currency and favors demonetizing modern society as well. This is the same lazy line of reasoning that concludes that we should be against interest, believe the earth was created in 6 days or really anything the bible may indicate that already agrees with something we believe. It’s the exact same problem most readers have with this biblical section in the beginning. They believe Jesus is telling us we have an obligation to government and to God and we just have to manage the two. Besides, it’s biblically obvious, right? The biblically obvious is just code for “something I already believe.” The biblically obvious is the enemy of biblical truth.

Jesus decries the monetization of Jewish society because the currency actively hurts the poor. It helps the powerful rob the poor through excessive taxation. It legitimizes the economic exchange of landless peasants working as wage laborers who are often being paid lower than subsistence wages to work land that used to belong to them, their extended families or neighboring villages. Even if this weren’t horrible enough, the Roman empire is devaluing its own currency to make even what they have near worthless.

An abbreviated history lesson: The Roman economy during Jesus’s life and especially during the time period of the early church becomes increasingly dependent on military expansion. Newly conquered territories and cities bring more tribute and plunder into Rome, but as Rome continues to expand, it incurs greater and greater costs at defending its holdings and to expand further and further geographically into more difficult to reach (and control) areas makes costs explode. Furthermore, Roman armies once were comprised entirely of Romans but an ever-expanding empire means they need an ever-expanding army and there were not enough Romans to fill the ranks. Rome recruits non-citizens to the legions with the promise of coin and land if they serve (and live) 30 years. These new Roman citizens cannot be given land inside Italy. There’s no land to give away. So they have to give them land in newly conquered territories. And they have to be paid. As the empire grows, the demands by soldiers become increasingly high for both land and coin. Political power shifts to generals who control the legions. They have to give more and more to placate soldiers and generals. The only way to do this, is to conquer more land and fight more wars for which they need even more soldiers.

The emperors find an easy solution to the problem of land. They just take it from locals in conquered areas like Israel either through conquest or debt. The solution for coin, is a bit harder but eventually is found. They way to pay the soldiers and the rest of their debtors is in the currency themselves. Inflation.

Starting in the 1st century, Roman emperors began regularly devaluing the currency. There wasn’t a very good understanding of monetary policy at the time but that doesn’t stop them from using inflation to the benefit of the empire. They reduce the amount of silver in the denarius and pretend nothing happened. Then they use the excess silver that they saved and just make more coins and use the extra currency to pay more of their debts. Problem solved. In modern terminology, they print a lot of extra money. An economy flooded with extra currency that isn’t actually producing anything more creates inflation. The value of the currency declines. It becomes worth less in relation to the goods or services it can purchase. Without ever taxing anyone or seizing anyone’s money, every single person in the empire who has a single coin to their name, or who works for wages, becomes poorer. Those with holdings in real assets (like land) are better protected.

Unsurprisingly, emperors found devaluing the currency to be far more politically expedient than raising taxes. It happened over the next 3 centuries to the point where the silver content of the denarius was as low as .02%, down from 90% in the 1st century and near 100% centuries before. Emperor Diocletian attempted reform by trying to increase the silver content of the denarius. He assumed that if the silver content rose, then the value of the denarius would also increase. He was wrong. By minting more and more of the coins, even if they were of a higher silver content, he was simply adding to the money supply and just driving up inflation. Roman inflation became so horrible, that Romans reverted back to a barter economy. It was a major, if not the major, factor in the fall of the empire.

Our text this week isn’t just about Jesus being the master of public debates. It isn’t just about Jesus forcing people to choose who they serve, God, Rome, or another master. And it’s not just about Jesus’s political commentary on taxes and how excessive taxation and tribute have systematically destroyed the political and economic rights of subsistence farmers. It’s also about how monetary policy can be used to hurt the poor and rob them of their wealth only to advance the interests of the powerful.

Christian pastors, ethicists and theologians need to address monetary policy more seriously. I never once heard monetary policy talked about in the seminary I attended, located in the heart of Washington DC, which prides itself at being at the forefront of political theology and social justice despite attending at the onset of the worldwide recession in 2008. To be quite honest, the students and professors either didn’t care or didn’t know what it was. Despite the fact that all of them professed to care for the poor and professed to care for those in extreme poverty overseas and despite the fact that irresponsible monetary policy and hyperinflation were major causes of the rise in poverty in early christian history, were the primary causes of the rise of fascism and war in Europe before World War II and were (and are) major causes for extreme poverty affecting millions in Africa, South America, the Middle East and South Asia, it was never discussed as if it didn’t exist. When was the last time a Christian social justice organization ever spoke prophetically about the rate of inflation?

Matthew 22 demands otherwise. The cry of the oppressed demands otherwise. Jesus, Justice and Monetary Policy demand otherwise. The subject matter is difficult. The concepts are not common sense. The reading is laborious, but so are books by author’s like William Herzog III, but damn was it worth it.

An apolitical Jesus is a Jesus robbed of his humanity.

An apolitical gospel is a gospel devoid of good news.

An apolitical church is a dispensary of harmless untruths so that its members can have peace of mind and lead a good life – aka: Bokononism.

A currency manipulated according to the interests of the powerful inevitably plunders what little wealth the poor possess.

2 thoughts on “Jesus, Justice and Monetary Policy

  1. I like this analysis. But what is missing (and perhaps not your main point, although I think it is a point) is looking at what currency does on a micro level. You’re right in that we need to talk about what monetary policy does on a macro level to hurt the poor. But currency also functions on a mirco level in a way that is anathema to the Kingdom of God and it does it to everyone involved in a monetary economy.

    You’re right to say that in modern society we love currency because there’s no way I could get my HDTV in exchange for my biblical interpretations. But the other reason we love currency is because it depersonalizes transactions. In a barter economy you have to have a relationship with the person with whom you’re bartering. You have to talk to them. With currency, there’s never any need. I can go to the grocery store, purchase anything and everything I need, check out, and never have to encounter or talk to an actual human being.

    Monetary economy and currency function on a micro level to make strangers of all of us. I don’t have to know who works at the gas company or the cable company or the electric company. I don’t have to know who farms the produce I buy (or even where its from!). I don’t have to know who makes the clothing I wear (or how old they are or how much they are paid). I don’t have to know what sort of lives the people who make my life possible lead. And therefore, I don’t have to care what type of life they lead. I don’t have to love my neighbor as myself because I don’t have to know or care about my neighbor.

    Now the realistic statement: modern society will not be demonetized. We will continue to base our lives around stable currency. But if we understand the way it functions, the pulls it has on our lives that we are constantly unaware of, we can start to resist.

    So I think you’re right, we need to talk about this. Because currency impacts our lives on every level. And if we choose to ignore it, we simply turn a blind eye to one of the most disordered relationships in our life.

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    1. Thanks Matt!

      I agree that monetary transactions are less personal than ones in barter a barter economy, but I think that’s a feature, not a flaw. The social costs of exchange in a barter economy are huge. It takes time and deeply invested relationships to barter effectively. While relationships are usually good, the type of relationships required in barter economies inhibit our ability to search for better products and prices everywhere else lowering the incentive to offer better products, better service or better prices. In short barter reduces the incentive to innovate and discourages competition. For those in weak social or political positions, its a situation that breeds continual subjugation. I do not believe that the social problems of a modern monetized economy are worse than the social problems of ancient barter economies.

      The depersonalized economic relationships do need to be better addressed but barter would make that worse, not better. As for a solution, I don’t know. Wish I had a better answer than “talk to the guy in the store and research about what you consume” but that’s the best I’ve got.

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