Jesus and Caesar
Reflection on Matthew 22:15-22*
In this classical text, Jesus faces a clear political situation. His adversaries show him a coin with Caesar face and demand a definition. His answer was crucial because it will express his ideological orientation of support or rejection of the Roman Empire.
It is a text that has been widely used by the powerful to justify a religion that promotes the oppression and a church always supporting the upper sectors of society, until it discovers that Jesus message was different. It is not easy to practice a liberating reading of the Gospel because for centuries the essence of Jesus revolutionary thinking has been obliterated.
But another type of reading is possible. We must learn to read the Gospel with the eyes of our heart, to understand this text as a clear refusal to Roman rule, as a denunciation against the empire and as a bold affirmation of the hope of the people vis a vis the Cesar of the war.
At that time Emperors were considers as all-powerful gods that required worship. And there were Jewish that rejected their own religion to follow the religions of the Empire. They prefer to pay tribute to Caesar, the ruling Roman god instead of Yahweh, the liberation God.
Jesus life, the development of his thinking and his liberating practice were strongly influenced by the Roman Empire under Caesar. The main contradiction was between Jesus and Caesar. Two historical projects with two world vision, one from the oppressor and one from the oppressed.
While Caesar is considers as god, Jesus makes an irreverent and subversive statement. He said that Caesar only has control over his belongings but not over the all universe, because there is a dimension of reality over which he is useless. That is the real meaning of the saying pay to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor, and pay to God what belongs to God. ¡It is very strong!
The history of humanity –as it is justly said by the Old Testament and the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels- is the history of the struggle between oppressors and oppressed people, between powerful and poor, between Empires and popular resistance, between the rebel Jesus and the arrogant Caesar.
Jesus as heir of a long tradition of antimperialistic struggle
Jesus was the heir of a long tradition of antimperialistic struggle. The Old Testament is the chronicle, the life diary of the efforts by the poor people to resist against the Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonia, Persian and Hellenic empires. The heroes and heroines of the people emerge in the framework of these struggles. Here we find Joshua, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremy, Amos, Esther, Judith and the Maccabeans brothers.
Every moment of the life of the Jewish people is marked by the resistance to the empires. For example Psalm 69 told about Babylonia and how the Hebrew who was captive there keeps dreaming with returning to their beloved land. This has been the dream of all the exiles everywhere at all times. It is the dream of our brothers and sisters in Washington, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. It was the dream of the people from Algeria living in Paris.
About Babylonia it is very interesting that liberation was accomplished as a result of the decision by Persian King Cyrus to allow the Jewish people to return to their land, because of contradiction among empires. They return to their Motherland and rebuild the walls of independence.
The resistance of the Maccabean brothers against the Macedonian yoke was another highlight event. The people rejected the images of the invaders and rise up in rebellion. And later, the resistance against the Roman, that strongly influences Jesus of Nazareth life.
Every people acquire their own resistance experience in the life of the struggle. And every person receives those roots in its birth, while some people discover this; others never get to know it. Our ancestors use to call this experience the knowledge of our nahual. It is a deep experience of struggle, of people’s resistance.
I remember that some time ago, Ricardo (Cornejo) and I had breakfast in Schafik Handal house, and he told us how his ancestors faced Ottoman Turkish empire oppression in Palestine, in Bethlehem. He told us how the soldiers arrived to the villages when the families were having lunch, and violently throw them away from the tables and seat them to eat the food. It was horrendous, he said.
The Aztec invasion
In our national history we have faced different empires and invasions, as well as the Hebrew people. I will share a hardly known experience. Before the Spanish invasion there was the Aztec invasion. Warrior’s tribes from what is now Mexico came in waves to our land and invade us; they violently displace the Mayan peoples in the West and the Lencas peoples in the East, which lives in our territory. They globalize us.
They impose us their language, Nahuat, their pantheistic religion and its way of government. The suffixes tepet (hill) and apan (river) present in most of our villages is a living testimony of this colonial track. This happened three hundred years before the Spanish invasion. There were peoples that resisted and were able to keep their independence as Jayaque and Talnique, two Lencas villages in pipil territory. We need to do research, to know more about these struggles because of their track. The track of oppression, the track of resistance.
Later in time, the Spanish imposes their rule for three hundred years. And we lost the Nahuat and acquire the Spanish. We lost the pantheistic vision and acquire Christianity. It was a new globalization. Our identity was deeply modified and also our world vision.
And now we face a new situation in which English emerges as the lingua franca of neoliberal globalization. And in the same way than Jewish were captive in Babylonia and the Christians were slaves in Rome, our Salvadoran people is undocumented in Washington. History plays the role of a mixer in the life of humanity.
In the same way that Jesus faced the Roman Empire and rejected to kneel down in front of Caesar, we are called to keep the heritage of dignity of Christian first communities and to reject consumerism and militarism promoted by Washington. We are called to fight and dream. There is a thread of resistance that runs through history that we should look and find. In that search we are giving our life and it is worth it. Amen.
*Sermon by Rev. Roberto Pineda, pastor of the Lutheran Popular Church of El Salvador. October 16th, 2005.