Luke Chapter 20 "Render Unto Caesar"

My Annual Conference in North Texas is sharing in a conference wide bible study of Luke and Acts. I've been asked to share my thoughts on three chapters (one a week) and I figured I would share these thoughts with you as well. I invite you to comment below if you are either impressed OR offended!

One of the repeated themes in this chapter centers on Jesus’ exposure of the hypocrisy of the chief priests, legal experts, and elders. The Common English Bible uses the term “legal expert” where the New Revised Standard Version uses “scribe.” I find this funny, because all of these terms (priest, elder, religious expert, Pharisee, etc.) have a contemporary equivalent to people like me and others who are trusted with knowledge and theological training and tasked to use it. It should be noted that, instead of sharing their wisdom and knowledge, in chapter 20 the “experts” spent their time trying to trip up Jesus. 
The author of Luke makes a point to expose the hypocrisy of these “experts” and shares the ease with which Jesus navigated their poor attempts to trick him. In seminary, I had a professor of theology who candidly spoke of the shock and offense with which Jesus would be met if he came into contact with our religious experts today: “Imagine Jesus applying for a job [as a professor] in Systematic Theology. Think of the consternation on the search committee. There is no way he could come up for tenure. There is not a single book review with his name on it!”[1] Jesus upends our image of knowledge and wisdom in chapter 20 by being the uneducated “blue collar” wage earner that holds his own in theological conversation with today’s equivalent of theology professors, bishops, and conference lay leaders.

It is also in this chapter that we encounter a portion of scripture that has become a trope in conversation about our faith and our civic responsibilities. In vs. 20-26, Jesus is challenged with the question “Is it lawful[2] for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” A yes or no answer would have both harmed Jesus’ ministry. He was in a catch-22 situation and he knew it. So instead of answering, he retorted with a command: “show me a denarius.” This denarius is important.

Take a look at the inscription:
This inscription is gibberish if left alone, but the Latin inscription fully spells out to say: 
Tiberius Caesar Divi Augustus Filius Augustus or, 
Caesar Tiberius Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus.

The coin Jesus asked for reveals the hypocrisy of the religious leaders as they approached Jesus with their question. By trying to trip up Jesus with their question, they revealed their allegiance to a government that had subjugated their people, coerced them into participating in a religion of emperor worship, and had committed many acts of violence against them. Jesus’ answer speaks to us today, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” The religious experts showed who and what they worshipped by trying to trick Jesus using a coin that stated that the Caesar of their time was the “Son of God.”
This raises a question about our role as citizens of our country alongside our citizenship in the “kindom” of God. I find it hard to believe that Jesus, who repeatedly and subversively undermined the Roman authorities who were oppressing his people, would ask us to blindly acquiesce to our government today in the times that it operates unjustly. Jesus’ ministry consisted of many things: healing, prophecy, and teaching. But it was also a form of protest. This passage ought to be redeemed as a question we continually return to as Christians: What of our lives and our allegiances are God’s?

Chapter 20 continues Jesus’ upending teachings that reverse our understanding of power relationships, speaks to the power of resurrection, and hints to the connection between Jesus and the Jewish expectation of a messiah who was prophesied to deliver them. Chapter 20 consists of repeated questions as to Jesus’ authority to be in the temple, and telling the good news.[3] Out of fear, the “experts” are unable to answer Jesus’ response to their question when they challenge his authority in the beginning of the chapter. They were more concerned with their political reality than the truth. May we look to Jesus and his ministry and teachings in this world without fear, even when Jesus’ work convicts us.

[1] William J. Abraham, “The Person of Jesus Christ,” Lecture, Perkins School of Theology, October 17, 2014.
[2] “Lawful” should be understood in the context of the Torah. Was it allowed by God?
[3] Telling the good news could mean evangelizing. Evangelizing would have been a term understood as imperial conquerors announcing to villages that a new power has come. Yet another radical way that Jesus proclaimed God’s “kindom” in defiance of the occupying Roman power.


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