Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Structure of Entrapment

Below is a rough translation of and some initial comments for Matthew 22:15-22, the Revised Common Lectionary gospel reading for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost. Your comments are always welcomed.

15 Τότε πορευθέντες οἱ Φαρισαῖοι συμβούλιον ἔλαβον ὅπως αὐτὸν παγιδεύσωσιν ἐν λόγῳ. 
Then having gone the Pharisees took counsel how they might entrap him in a word.
πορευθέντες: APPart npm, πορεύομαι, 1) to lead over, carry over, transfer  1a) to pursue the journey on which one has entered, to continue on  one's journey
ἔλαβον: AAI 3p, λαμβάνω, 1) to take  1a) to take with the hand, lay hold of, any person or thing  in order to use it
παγιδεύσωσιν: AASubj 3p, παγιδεύω, 1) to ensnare, entrap  1a) of birds 
1. The context of this pericope is that Jesus has entered Jerusalem with great fanfare (21:1-11) and having cleansed the temple (21:12-17) he is back now teaching in the temple. The chief priests and elders question his authority, which evokes two parables, at the end of which Matthew says “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet” (21:25-26). Again Jesus gives a parable that is aimed at the leadership, the parable of the wedding banquet and the addendum of the wrongly-dressed guest (22:1-14). Today’s pericope is the first of three attempts by various groups allied in leadership to entrap Jesus. Following that, Jesus goes on the offensive in challenging them (22:41-46).
2. The word ‘entrap’ (παγιδεύω) is used here for the only time in the NT. As the definition suggests, it is a hunting term. I am not clear on whether their hope is to trick Jesus into saying something actionable, in order to arrest him, or to make him say something that will turn the tide of his popularity against him.

16 καὶ ἀποστέλλουσιν αὐτῷ τοὺς μαθητὰς αὐτῶν μετὰ τῶν Ἡρῳδιανῶν
λέγοντες, Διδάσκαλε, οἴδαμεν ὅτι ἀληθὴς εἶ καὶ τὴν ὁδὸν τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν 
ἀληθείᾳ διδάσκεις, καὶ οὐ μέλει σοι περὶ οὐδενός, οὐ γὰρ βλέπεις εἰς 
πρόσωπον ἀνθρώπων. 
And they send to him their disciples with the Herodians saying, “Teacher, we have known that you are true and you teach the way of God in truth, and you do not care about no one, for you do not look into a face of humans.
ἀποστέλλουσιν: PAI 3p, ἀποστέλλω, 1) to order (one) to go to a place appointed  
λέγοντες: PAPart apm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
οἴδαμεν: PerfAI 1p, εἴδω, ἴδω, to see, the other to know.
εἶ: PAI 2s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
διδάσκεις: PAI 2s, διδάσκω, 1) to teach
μέλει: PAI 3s, μέλω; it is a care: τινί, to one;
βλέπεις: PAI 2s, βλέπω, 1) to see, discern, of the bodily eye
1. The fact that the Pharisees are in a position to send, not only some of their disciples but some of the “Herodians” as well, indicates that they are in consort with the Herodians. Mark also mentions the Herodians – twice (3:6 and 12:13), both times as co-conspirators with the Pharisees. The term does not arise anywhere else in the NT. Beyond the self-evident name, it does not appear that there is a lot of information about this group.
2. This is very handsome praise! Of course, it has already been described by Matthew as the bait in a snare. Still, it is effusive praise and puts me in mind of the 24th Psalm:
Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
   And who shall stand in his holy place?
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
   who do not lift up their souls to what is false,
   and do not swear deceitfully.
They will receive blessing from the Lord,
   and vindication from the God of their salvation.
Such is the company of those who seek him,
   who seek the face of the God of Jacob.
I mention the 24th Psalm because, as I will show in my comments after the text, I think the theology that it reflects is part of the background to the question that will be posed to Jesus. There may be other psalms that are even more clearly echoed in this story; the 24th is the just one that comes to my mind most readily.

17 εἰπὲ οὖν ἡμῖν τί σοι δοκεῖ: ἔξεστιν δοῦναι κῆνσον Καίσαρι  οὔ; 
Therefore, say to us what you opine: Is it lawful to give the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”
εἰπὲ: AAImpv 2s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
δοκεῖ: PAI 3s, δοκέω, 1) to be of opinion, think, suppose  2) to seem, to be accounted, reputed  3) it seems to me 
ἔξεστιν: PAI 3s, ἔξεστι, 1) it is lawful 
δοῦναι: AAInf, δίδωμι, 1) to give  2) to give something to someone 
1. The word “lawful” (ἔξεστι) appears 9x in Matthew, as well as in the other gospels, Acts, and Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. It does not refer strictly to religious laws, like the law of Moses. In Acts 22, for example, Paul asks a Centurion whether it is lawful for him to flog an un-condemned Roman citizen, making reference to Roman laws and not the law of Moses.
2. The ambiguity of the word “lawful” may be part of the trap. Hebrew law may suggest one thing; Imperial law may suggest another. How Jesus hears and responds to the word “lawful” itself may be an indicator of this religious blasphemy or his political sedition – the twin jaws of this trap.
3. I have translated as “imperial tax” following the ESV because the root of the word κῆνσον is the word for “census,” which would be taken of conquered areas and on which the tax/tribute would be levied.
4. While the practical aspect of the imperial tax would be that conscripting armies is a costly affair (and many would-be emperors were done in by debt as much as military strategy), the symbolic effect is that one acknowledges the emperor’s lordship. This question, then, is not unrelated to questions regarding King David and the expectation of a messiah from David’s lineage – the topic of Jesus’ question to the religious leaders at the end of this chapter.

18 γνοὺς δὲ  Ἰησοῦς τὴν πονηρίαν αὐτῶν εἶπεν, Τί με πειράζετε, ὑποκριταί;
Yet Jesus, having known their evil, said, “Why are you testing me, hypocrites!
γνοὺς: AAPart nsm, γινώσκω, 1) to learn to know, come to know, get a knowledge of perceive, feel
εἶπεν: AAI 3p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
πειράζετε: PAI 2p, πειράζω, 1) to try whether a thing can be done  1a) to attempt, endeavour  2) to try, make trial of, test:
1. I think the key word here is “hypocrites!” Jesus does not just summons a clever answer; his answer exposes the hypocrisy behind the trap.
2. The verb “test” (πειράζω) is used of the religious leadership here and elsewhere, and of the devil in c.4.

19 ἐπιδείξατέ μοι τὸ νόμισμα τοῦ κήνσου. οἱ δὲ προσήνεγκαν αὐτῷ δηνάριον. 
Show me the coin of the imperial tax.” And they brought to him a denarius.
ἐπιδείξατέ : AAImpv 2p, ἐπιδείκνυμι, 1) to exhibit, show  1a) to bring forth to view, to show  1a1) furnish to be looked at, produce what may looked at
προσήνεγκαν: προσφέρω, 1) to bring to, lead to 
1. As many have pointed out, this conversation seems to be taking place in the temple (21:23), where this coin would be unwelcomed because it bears the image of a living thing. Temple coinage – which one would obtain via a money-changer – was imprinted with numbers, letters, or even depictions of harvested wheat, but not a living thing, in deference to the commandment in Exodus 20:4. (I find the collection of coins to be one of the most interesting parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit whenever I visit it. Roman coinage was all about asking, “Who’s your Daddy?” while Jewish coinage fastidiously avoided images of living beings.)

20 καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς, Τίνος ἡ εἰκὼν αὕτη καὶ  ἐπιγραφή; 
And he says to them, “Who [is] this icon and the inscription?”
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
1. The word εἰκὼν is not the word in the LXX of Exodus 20:4 (εἴδωλον or “idol”), but is the word in the creation story of Genesis 1:27, where God creates humanity in God’s image (εἰκόνα).
2. TIP FOR “YOUNG CHURCH”: Once I had a small ornate square glass box with a lid. I told the children during worship about this biblical story and showed them coins that had presidential images. Then I told them that inside of my box was an image of what God is like. I was very mysterious about it, because nobody can say, exactly, what God is like, but in this box they could see something of what God is like. Finally, I let them persuade me to open it so they could see and, one by one they saw the mirror that made up the bottom of the box. You know you’ve scored when one of the children turns around and yells to his parents, “Oh, that was so cool!”

21 λέγουσιν αὐτῷ, Καίσαρος. τότε λέγει αὐτοῖς, Ἀπόδοτε οὖν τὰ Καίσαρος 
Καίσαρι καὶ τὰ τοῦ θεοῦ τῷ θεῷ. 
They say to him, “Caesar.” Then he says to them, “Therefore, give the things of Caesar to Caesar and the things of God to God.”
λέγουσιν: PAI 3p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
Ἀπόδοτε: AAImpv 2p, ἀποδίδωμι, 1) to deliver, to give away for one's own profit what is one's  own, to sell  2) to pay off, discharge what is due 
1. As far as I can tell, this is the only time Jesus mentions Caesar by name.
2. I’m not Lutheran, but this answer sure sounds like the foundation of Luther’s ‘two-kingdom’ approach to the question of Christ and Culture.

22 καὶ ἀκούσαντες ἐθαύμασαν, καὶ ἀφέντες αὐτὸν ἀπῆλθαν.
And having heard, they marveled, and having left him they went away.
ἀκούσαντες: AAPart npm, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing,
ἐθαύμασαν: AAI 3p, θαυμάζω, 1) to wonder, wonder at, marvel 
ἀφέντες: AAPart npm, ἀφίημι, 1) to send away  … 3b) to depart from anyone
ἀπῆλθαν: AAI 3p, ἀπέρχομαι, 1) to go away, depart 
1. The Herodians and disciples of the Pharisees have struck out. On deck are the Sadducees and in the hole are some more Pharisees. Jesus will pitch a one-two-three inning. This comment has been brought to you by the ongoing playoffs of Major League Baseball.

Many scribes near and far have pondered the implications of this conclusion to Jesus’ query. I’m not sure if there is content here, as much as form. The structure of the whole encounter has been between two options – compromise one’s faith in acquiescence to the emperor or resist the emperor in the name of fidelity to God. The structure is introduced by the persons involved – Herodians and Pharisees, who are strange bedfellows, since their commitments should have put them on opposite sides of this matter. But, again, it is not a genuine question; it is a trap. And now I will proceed to allegorize the heck out of this trap.

The chum around the trap is the ironic praise that the Herodians and Pharisees offer to Jesus, as one who teaches the way of God in truth and does not give attention to the face of humans. I call it ironic because, while it is lovely praise and begins with “we know,” it does not appear that the speakers themselves believe a word of it. The bait of the trap is the question that the Herodians and Pharisees ask, “Yes or no to the imperial tax?” I suggest that the hinge of the trap is implied in the word “lawful,” which can refer to the imperial “law of the land” or the religious “law of God.” As I state above, the twin jaws of the trap are sedition, if Jesus opposes the tax to Caesar, or blasphemy, if he upholds it. If Jesus goes for the bait, he’s simply going to be caught between these two realities and they will have him. My sense is that they hope he will either provoke the Roman authorities or lose his popularity among the people.

Jesus’ answer simply accepts that there is an imperial system at hand and there is the reign of God at hand. But, Jesus structures the answer in a way that the questioners are put into the position of having to interpret the content. To give the things of Caesar to Caesar means … what? From the empire’s point of view, it is whatever Caesar requires or demands from a vassal state. To give the things of God to God means … what? From a religious point of view, the earth is the lord’s and everything in it. Jesus’ answer – it seems to me – does not resolve specific questions we might have regarding taxation and the interplay between church and state. It deftly avoids the trap that has been laid for him.

Beyond the interplay of the Pharisees setting traps and Jesus responding to them, this text may provide a structure for considering the questions that arise when we live with both the reality of imperial regimes and the reality of God’s reign. However, it seems to me that it only provides a form for framing those questions, not a whole lot of content for fleshing out what it means. There are still competing claims between the reign of God and the Empire of Rome. Compare this description of how Rome would declare war from Book I of Livy’s History of Rome to the 24th Psalm. 

The ambassador binds his head in a woollen fillet. When he has reached the frontiers of the nation from whom satisfaction is demanded, he says, "Hear, O Jupiter! Hear, ye confines" - naming the particular nation whose they are - "Hear, O Justice! I am the public herald of the Roman People. Rightly and duly authorised do I come; let confidence be placed in my words." Then he recites the terms of the demands, and calls Jupiter to witness: "If I am demanding the surrender of those men or those goods, contrary to justice and religion, suffer me nevermore to enjoy my native land." He repeats these words as he crosses the frontier, he repeats them to whoever happens to be the first person he meets, he repeats them as he enters the gates and again on entering the forum, with some slight changes in the wording of the formula. If what he demands are not surrendered at the expiration of thirty-three days - for that is the fixed period of grace - he declares war in the following terms: "Hear, O Jupiter, and thou Janus Quirinus, and all ye heavenly gods, and ye, gods of earth and of the lower world, hear me! I call you to witness that this people" - mentioning it by name - "is unjust and does not fulfil its sacred obligations. But about these matters we must consult the elders in our own land in what way we may obtain our rights."

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it;
for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.            Psalm 24:1-2


5 comments:

  1. You know, I've always loved this story because it seems to me there is a joke in it somewhere that 2000 years of history has forgotten. No Jew, even sycophanic ones, could really believe that anyone "owns" anything. Luther, channeling his inner Moses once remarked there is really only one commandment, the other nine are commentary. I believe something like that is going on here. Jesus is so dismissive of the question that he doesn't have time for such trivial bullshit--so he points out the most obvious thing any Jew knows: in questions of lordship, the first commandment is all you need. Anyhow, that's my sermon this morning. See you soon.

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  2. That's a sermon I would love to hear. Blessings, Scott!

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  3. Without approving the Roman state, or any state, there is also a question here of how we apply our religious values to participation in the state. Were Roman roads good? Was there oppression? Imperial states may do good, but they also impose agendas. I think it is interesting to think about what secular actions we support through taxes and so on, and when we resist or critique. How do we serve the values of our own perspectives, and when do we resist those also? Thanks so much for helping me from the questions for tomorrow's sermon. Thanks also for the kid talk. I always cite you btw.

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    1. Hi Trudy,
      Thanks for your kind note. And you are free to cite or not to cite me. I only recommend it when you want to introduce one of my 'thin ice' comments without having to ascribe to it yourself. :-)
      I'm struggling alongside of you, more equipped to raise questions than to approach any sort of answer. It is some consolation to me that Jesus doesn't really quite answer the question either, just offers a formula for holding it and thinking it through.
      I'm trying to connect the formula with the Presbyterian Brief Statement of Faith, that says, "In life and in death, we belong to God." In our congregation we say it at every baptism and at every funeral, but I'm trying to embrace it as a calling, not just as a word of hope or comfort. Not there yet. Ah well.
      Thanks again for your note. MD

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    2. Were the Romans 'good'? Three thoughts. Firstly, this links nicely with the OT reading set from Isaiah 45 (Cyrus the servant of God). Perhaps the Romans are also acting as the servants of God, albeit unwittingly. Secondly, I'm a big fan of historian Dan Carlin who says that looking back on the benefits of any regime is like firing an arrow and then painting a target around it (I'm paraphrasing). The Romans didn't make roads, bridges, aqueducts etc to help spread the Gospel, but it did help, when the time came. Thirdly, I refer you to Monty Python and 'What have the Romans Ever Done for Us?' simply because it's funny.

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