Food Stamps for Jesus. The Screwloose Letters, Vol 1, #3
Listen friends, I have to tell you, The Rock and the Tower moves me to superlatives--please indulge--I must say it is the most perspicuous, the most penetrating, the most thorough—even exhaustive---piece of biblical scholarship I have encountered, in all my 88 years. It’s a new book on our favorite subject, the beginnings of Christianity, by one S.P. Laurie of London. It rounds out my own work, brings it to completion, as I fade out. Way back when, I came to the same conclusions as has this author, at least in broad parameters, and that electrifying illumination became the inspiration for my rather unheralded novel Stranger Than Fiction: The Gospel According to Marcellus, the sagging sales of which, for me, have been more than compensated for by the serendipitous thrill of finding someone who agrees with me.
It’s kept me up nights. I’m on my third reading. It’s a mind-bender, a head-spinning exercise in hermeneutics. For those who might need that last-mentioned word defined, here it is, reduced to its minimal meaning: it has to do with the correct interpretation of words in a text. Reading and understanding correctly a literary document, in this case the Bible, the Gospel of Thomas, that sort of thing. And not just the words themselves, but the context in which they were written, the “life situation,” if you will. This is not the subjective wilderness that you might think. Though it does require a bit of imagination now and then, it is a science in its own right—so don’t throw up your hands and dismiss it.
Seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you...
Yeah I know, you’d rather not bother. I know how you are. But tell you what, for just this once, just for laughs, lend me that unresponsive ear of yours, as with the help of Mr Laurie we look again at a familiar Bible story you’ll recall from Sunday School, and you’ll see what I mean. And then I’ll add a little hermeneutics of my own, to bring it up to date. OK? It’s that old story as it appears in the Gospel of Mark about the coin they brought to Jesus, the one with Caesar’s image on it, the day they tried to trap him. Should we pay taxes to Caesar? What say you, Jesus? This Caesar is a bad guy. And all this money will no doubt be used for the Roman war machine, who knows what else? Do we serve Caesar or God? Either way Jesus answered, they thought they had him.
One of the principles of the old hermeneutics, dear to Evangelicals in my day, was let scripture interpret scripture, wherever possible. So Laurie goes first to the Book of Revelation (written, he thinks, about the same time as Mark’s Gospel) to give us a little background. Here it is, a look at the worldview of the earliest proto-Christians, slightly abridged, my italics. Read it slowly, let it sink in. And do remember, we’re looking at the thought-world of these early ‘Christians,’ and not necessarily what I believe, or what you should think… it is simply put forth as what is going on. In context, and then in the Markan text. Call it unpacking. Here’s Laurie.
“Revelation says that those who belong to the beast (the great majority of the population) will be marked: And he causes all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand, or on their foreheads. And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, either the name of the beast or the number of his name. (Revelation 13:16-17) The mark of the beast on the forehead or hand is clearly metaphorical and is intended to reflect the practice of branding slaves. Those who belong to the beast bear his mark in an obvious way so that all can recognize them. The idea that no one can buy or sell without the mark, or the name of the beast, or his number is a way of saying that all commerce essentially belongs to the beast. The coins of the empire would carry the image of the Emperor and to the author of Revelation the use of coins to buy and sell constitutes a form of Emperor worship. In Mark following on from the important parable of the vineyard, some Jews ask Jesus whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus asks them to bring him a denarius:
‘So they brought it, and he says to them, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?" And they said to him, “Caesar's.” Jesus said to them, "Give to Caesar the things of Caesar, and to God the things of God." (Mark 12:16-17)’
“A version of this saying appears as Thomas 100 but with a gold coin and without the image of Caesar. In this case the Mark version is to be preferred as being closer to the original than the surviving Thomas version; the idea of the coin bearing the image of Caesar, found in Mark but not Thomas, ties in naturally with the coin belonging to Caesar. Note the connection between Caesars ‘image and superscription’ and the ‘mark or the name of the beast’.
“Commentators have offered up many explanations for this saying. The conventional interpretation is that people should be good citizens and cheerfully pay their taxes to the civil authorities. However, the early Jesus movement believed that evil forces were in control of the world and ruled all nations. The real interpretation is given by Revelation; the coins bear the mark of the beast, his ‘image and superscription’ and so belong to the beast. All commerce takes place in the sphere of the beast and so is inherently corrupting. Caesar is evil, and his money is evil as well. We know that the early Christians had a philosophy of not owning anything but giving away their possessions and trusting to God to supply their needs. The same hostility to commerce is expressed in the Gospel of Thomas: ‘The buyers and the merchants [will] not [enter] the places of my Father.’ (Thomas 64)
“Caesar, the leader of the nations on earth, represents the leader of the demons in heaven. The deeper meaning is that the demons control the world and all things in it and that those who cherish material possessions have already submitted to their rule. Those of The Way do not submit but neither do they rebel in a physical sense. Instead, they simply put themselves outside of the sphere of the demons and exist in the sphere of God. The demons are the rightful rulers of the world appointed by God, and a disciple should give to the demons what belongs to the demons. This includes money but also in extremis the disciple's body surrendered to the demons through martyrdom. Those who ask Jesus the question about taxes are so grounded in the material world that they cannot understand that both the money they begrudge paying and the authorities to whom they must pay it are equally evil.
“The depiction of the Roman Empire in Revelation is the type of all governments and authorities. Rome was the first modern state and its successors, whether monarchies, dictatorships, communistic or democracies, are built in its image. The culture of a modern democracy has benefited from two thousand years of Christianity; no one gets crucified anymore. But the very reasonableness of a democracy hides a subtle corruption, a corrupting of people from within. In a democracy, the cult of the material pervades across all classes and reaches heights never seen under more authoritarian regimes. The stench of the beast is never greater than among those who rule and in a democracy everyone is a ruler….” Laurie, S.P.. The Rock and the Tower
Here’s the earlier version, from Thomas 100.
They showed him a gold coin and said, ‘Caesar’s agents demand tribute from us.’ He said to them, ‘Then give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s. Give to God what is God’s. And give me that which is mine.’
We know that Mark got this story from Thomas, but look what he’s done! Did you notice? As usual, and as the proto-orthodox Church begins to gather momentum, everything gets increasingly simplified and literalised: the riddles of Thomas are abandoned or otherwise tailored for the influx of the new psychics crowding aboard, headed for Rome. ‘Mark’ doesn’t understand--understandably--this enigmatic saying in his Thomas source, and so doctors it up a bit (keep it simple, stupid). He adds the image of Caesar on the coin, so as to amplify the associations depicted above---but then he drops the third part of Jesus’ reply, italicised above.
And give me that which is mine…
Well, how would you explain it? Okay, we get it, give to Caesar what is obviously his, the money, the demons, all of it belongs to him, and then give the proper worship to God which alone belongs to him, and forget about it. Go on your way in peace, right? Problem solved. But then that third thing Jesus adds: and then give me what is mine… What is that all about? And don’t say ‘worship;’ the Jesus of Thomas does not ask to be worshiped. No, in the context this would have to do with the coin, with money, with material needs.
Let’s conjure up that context: these guys are hungry! Picture the provided narrative—a small band of unemployed students and their charismatic teacher are wandering around in the dried up desert somewhere south of Jerusalem. Nobody has a ‘job,’ no commerce is being transacted, no demons even consulted. Where the next meal is coming from is anybody’s guess. Why do you think they’re hanging around in town today? They are in fact beggars, on permanent self-imposed welfare. Judas has the moneybag, but he doesn’t need a wheelbarrow. Their leader has taught them in fact a very practical prayer give us this day our bread for the morrow, and forgive us our debts (we’ve had to beg and borrow, if not steal) as we forgive the ones who’ve bummed from us and let us not be put to the test (what might we be tempted to do if we get desperate enough?).
But that give me what is mine…? After I’ve paid the taxes to Caesar, given him back his coin, after I’ve given God his spiritual coin, what about Me? What can I claim as rightfully mine? Anything at all? Do I get any return for paying my taxes?
How about my life? Is that too much to claim as rightfully mine? Is there such a thing as a God-given Right to Life? Forget Ayn Rand, who denied this, Queen of Commerce that she was—and those Evangelicals who mindlessly buy into her no-holds barred Capitalism for All economics, cradle to grave, medical care only if you can afford it--and set aside for the moment the business of the fetus-loving ideology that calls abortion murder and then does nothing about our ongoing gun massacres… forget all that. Do I have a right to my life? The Founding Fathers thought so: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Certain Inalienable Rights. Would Jesus have agreed? Is it possible, is it even remotely possible, that Jesus back in Thomas 100 was making a connection between paying taxes and getting something in return, indeed some “entitlement?” This is the real Pro-Life discussion, folks.
Put your gun down for a minute and give me something to eat.
Give me what is mine.