Saturday, July 12, 2008

Chapter 13 - A parable and Taxes to Caesar

After Jesus disposed of the question concerning his authority to cleanse the Temple precinct, he continued by reciting a parable describing an absentee landowner[1] who sends messengers to lay claim to his part of the produce at the proper season. The tenants are said to consistently turn away the messengers, while attempting to secure title to the land themselves. The parable is a re-narration of the words found in the book of Isaiah[2].
The parable drives home the message: God owns the land. He is the absentee landowner. His tenants have leased the land. During the proper season, God sends messengers to lay claim to his share of the produce, but they are constantly rejected. Jesus properly asks "What shall therefore the lord of the vineyard do?", and responds in the prophetic tradition by saying, "He will come and destroy the husbandmen, and will give the vineyard to others."[3] Where the gospel narrative leaves off with the impression of a rather general indictment, Isaiah immediately specifies the particulars with: "Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no more place that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth!" And later, "Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink; that continue until midnight, till wine inflame them! ... Therefore my people are gone into captivity, because they have no knowledge: and their honourable men are famished, and their multitude dried up with thirst. Woe unto them that draw iniquity with chords of vanity, and sin as it were with a cart rope: That say, Let him make speed, and hasten his work, that they may see it: and let the counsel of the Holy One of Israel draw nigh and come, that we may know it."

With or without the words from Isaiah, Jesus' message against the wealthy establishment was clear. The Herodians, who had accumulated the majority of all land holdings, and the chief priests, who had built their wealth upon the land donated to the temple, had both violated God's trust. The aristocracy ignored God's right of eminent domain and accompanying scriptural forewarnings, because they claimed their wealth for themselves. As Jesus had said before, "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."[4]

The narrow passageway that proved impassable for the wealthy was the seventh year: the ownerless seventh-year produce, the freed bondservants, the canceled debts, and the unrealized profits. Ultimately, the prospect of a series of sabbatical years climaxing at a jubilee period of "restitution of all things," and equitable land redistribution threatened the aristocracy too much. The establishment headed by the Herodians and the chief priests aroused themselves and conspired together to do away with one more messenger, proclaiming the acceptable year of the Lord for the sake of the poor, the needy, and the oppressed.

The parable describing the wicked husbandmen convinced the Herodians and the chief priests that Jesus had directed his attack against them. They, in their turn, attempted to turn the tables upon their assailant.

The ruling authorities knew that the Roman territorial policy of uninterrupted taxation stirred the people to controversy during the seventh year and enraged the zealots. Many large landowners were tempted to work that portion of the fields to pay the Roman taxes, but their religious law did not allow the exemption. The devout and the Zealots, contrary to the large landowners, fervently supported the restriction. The battle plan was laid down. If Jesus could be provoked to speak out against the Roman administration, the Roman loyalist officials would not have any problem delivering the troublemaker in the hands of the Roman procurator, Pilate.

The snare was set by having a protagonist ask, "Master, we know that thou art true, and carest for no man: for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth: Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not? Shall we give or shall we not give?"

Jesus had no problem recognizing the concealed entrapment, but neither could he turn on the religious law. He replied, "Why tempt ye me? Bring me a penny that I may see it."

When they showed the coin, Jesus refrained from even touching it. He simply asked, "Whose is this image and superscription?"

The protagonist returned the answer, "Caesar's."

Again Jesus spoke, "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."[5]

The snare worked, but not as intended. The final reply pounded once more upon those who Jesus had already accused of dishonoring God. God was sovereign over Israel, its people, and holy produce. The Herodians and Roman loyalist group who chose to sell out to Rome by dealing in seventh-year goods were subject to Roman taxes. The Zealots and those who renounced their possessions for the sake of the seventh year chose not to pay the Roman taxes. Those who were faithful paid their entire wealth as tribute to God in the seventh year in the manner set down in the Law.

Jesus, in his turn, pursued the attack upon his opposition, and echoed the words found in Isaiah's parable of the wicked landowner.
"But woe unto you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men, for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in (and partake of the seventh-year benefits). Woe unto you! for ye devour widow's houses, and for a pretense make a long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation ... Woe unto you, hypocrites! for ye pay tithes of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat and swallow a camel."[6]

How could Jesus criticize those who were circumspect concerning the payment of tithes? Jesus himself was no less circumspect regarding the law. The payment of tithes from expensive herbs, which graced the tables of the rich, may have reflected an attitude of extravagance but it was no more extravagant than the costly spikenard, with which Jesus had been anointed.[7] The explanation follows once more as one being peculiar to the seventh year.

The payment of tithes was generally suspended in the seventh year. However, in the general category of herbs, such as spices, rice, and lentils, which grow only when they are properly watered, the sages of the oral tradition ruled that tithe payment was obligatory during the seventh year, but not in the following year.[8] Here, Jesus chose to single out the aristocracy for criticism. Where many others had abandoned property in the seventh year, the wealthy would continue to dine in their customary manner and pay the herb tithes to salve their conscience, having omitted the fundamental precepts concerning the command to recognize God and share the common lot with the poor.

When Jesus relented from his attack on the wealthy establishment, he withdrew from the city and waited for the Herodians and chief priests to place him in their custody. The bow had been drawn. The ruling oligarchy could not tolerate Jesus as a potential troublemaker anymore than they had tolerated John the Baptist or Judas of Galilee. Anyone who did not show the proper respect to the Roman loyalist regime was lumped together as an enemy against Caesar. No one could impede the Roman agenda of turning stone into bread, patronizing the imperial divinity cult, and forging a new world order unrestricted by heavenly cycles.

[1] Matthew 21:33-43
[2] Isaiah: 5:1-30
[3] Jesus' dire warning concerning the parable of the wicked husbandmen, Mark 12:1-9, and the "abomination of desolation both prefigure the talmudic counsel, M. Avoth 5:8 "Pestilence comes upon the world ... for neglect of the law regarding the earth's fruit during the sabbatical year." Also see M Avoth 5:9, and Sabbath 33a. The common theme of impending destruction stems from Lev. 26:27-35.
[4] Matthew 19:24
[5] Matthew 22:15-22
[6] Matthew 23:13-14, 23-24
[7] Mark 14:3-4
[8] Mishna Shebiit 2:7-10

No comments: