Friday, December 25, 2009

What is Christian morality - part 7

lashings of Jesus

11:15-19 They come to Jerusalem. And he went into the temple and began chasing the vendors and shoppers out of the temple area, and he turned the bankers’ tables upside down, along with the chairs of the pigeon merchants, and he wouldn’t even let anyone carry a container through the temple area. Then he started teaching and would say to them: ‘Don’t the scriptures say, ‘My house is to be regarded as a house of prayer for all peoples’? – but you have turned it into a ‘hideout for crooks’!’ [see also Matt 21:12-13, Luke 19:45-46, John 2:13-17].

This passage is indicative of Jesus’s adopted role as an unorthodox, reforming rabbi. Clearly, he’s committed to the Judaic religion and wishes to purify it of these course elements. The dark mutterings of the scholars after this event are enough to reveal the danger Jesus was getting into with his uncompromising stance.

Of course there’s an issue around the violence of this episode. It’s dealt with perfunctorily by the gospel writers, but in John an interesting detail is mentioned – he made a whip out of rope and drove them all out of the temple area... [John 2:15]. The pre-meditated decision to fashion a whip suggests more than just a sudden fit of pique. We will never know of course, but there’s surely a hint here of a deliberately confrontational nature. And how does this apparent defence of the orthodox use of the temple fit with Jesus’s unorthodoxy as regards the Sabbath and handwashing? It’s a mystery.

I’m sorry that none of this specifically relates to any unique Christian morality, but I’m afraid there just isn’t that much meat to pick at.

12:1-8 The parable of the leased vineyard [see also Matt 21:33-39, Luke 20:9-15]

This is an interesting and tragic story, repeated in Matthew and Luke, but it’s hard to draw any clear moral from it, other than ‘watch who you lease your vineyard to’.

A farmer leases his vineyard to some other farmers before going abroad. Later he sends a slave to collect his share of the harvest. They beat him up and send him away with nothing. So he sends another, and the same thing happens. Next time he sends someone the person is killed. He sends more slaves, and they’re all either beaten or killed. Finally he sends his beloved son, thinking this time some respect will be shown, but they kill him, hoping that, with the heir out of the way, they will inherit the vineyard.

Of course the story almost begs for an allegorical interpretation, with Jesus as the beloved son, in which case the moral might be that we humans are ungrateful sods, never satisfied with what the good lord gives us, ready to kill for more. It would also have prophetic implications, and you know how these gospellers love a prophecy. Of course, there’s also the possibility that Jesus was simply telling a hard luck story about a guy he knew.

The parable is immediately followed by a question and answer from Jesus: What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come in person, and do away with those farmers, and give the vineyard to someone else. Here we seem to be moving very much into allegorical territory, with the vineyard representing ‘God’s imperial domain’. Moral: if you do bad, no domain for you. Jesus follows this up with a verse [22] from psalm 118: A stone that the builders rejected has ended up as the keystone. It was the Lord’s doing and is something you admire. Presumably this means that God is full of surprises, he moves in mysterious ways, but always ends up making the right decisions. So just follow God. I’m not sure if this helps much for human decision-making.

12:13-17 And they send some of the Pharisees and the Herodians to him to trap him with a riddle. They come and say to him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are honest and impartial, because you pay no attention to appearances, but instead you teach God’s way forthrightly. Is it permissible to pay the poll tax to the Roman emperor or not? Should we pay or should we not pay?’ But he saw through their trap, and said to them, “Why do you provoke me like this? Let me have a look at a coin.’ They handed him a silver coin, and he says to them, ‘Whose picture is this? Whose name is on it?’ They replied, ‘The emperor’s.’ Jesus said to them: ‘Pay the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and God what belongs to God!’ And they were dumbfounded at him [see also Matt 22:15-22, Luke 20:19-26].

Let me give some background to this famous episode. The Romans imposed a special tax on the Jews, which no other colonized peoples had to pay. This might seem discriminatory, but what the Jews received in return was the right to worship their own god. Generally, the Romans expected, as a matter of course, that defeated peoples would adopt the Roman gods as their own, as a symbol of their subjection. No doubt they turned a blind eye to what these people did in the privacy of their homes, as long as they displayed fealty to the Roman gods in public. But the Romans met surprising resistance from the Jews. Not that they were in any way a military threat, but they simply refused to betray their own god, who, as we know, was particularly jealous of other gods, inveighing against them as false idols. The Jews’ attitude was – kill us all if you like, but no way are we going to bow down to those gods. The Romans had no desire to inflict a massacre; it would cause bad blood among other subject nations, and might cost more than a few Roman lives. So they hit upon the idea of a special tax – a win-win situation.

Of course, as is the way with these things, not all Jews were satisfied with this solution. The more radical Jews urged defiance of the Roman authorities and their tax-collecting Jewish proxies [hence the low esteem in which tax collectors are held in the gospels]. Among these radicals were the Essenes, of Dead Sea Scroll fame. They’ve been described as the Taliban of the period [replete with their own cave hideouts], and it’s even been argued that Jesus was one of them, but that he turned his back on them to take a more populist, but also more idiosyncratic, middle line, as represented by this particular story. The Pharisees and Herodians, essentially collaborators, were spying on Jesus and testing him to see where he stood politically. Jesus’s response has been hailed as a prime example of wily evasiveness, while also, of course, carrying an anti-materialist message. Some have also interpreted the message as anti-political, or at least apolitical. It’s an important issue, as the separation of church and state is often defended by the citing of this passage, though I would argue that this separation doctrine, which is only a couple of centuries old, arose out of bitter experience in Europe – for example, the incredibly brutal Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century, as well as the English Revolution, in which the insistence upon the divine right of kings meant that a questioning of the ruler’s authority entailed a disobedience to God. Jesus becomes a useful ally in the development of such a doctrine, but the fact remains that his words are ambiguous.



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