Friday, August 14, 2015

Coins in a Fountain: The Coin Tricks at Capernaum and Jerusalem

Ad fontes!

Back to the thing itself!

More water, Gunga Din!

quemadmodum desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum ita desiderat anima mea ad te Deus [Ps. 42]

Few would argue that Jesus was arrested, tried and executed for his unwavering allegiance to Rome and the Temple. Something else was definitely going on. Was the issue Jesus' subversion of the norm? Even a toothless subverting source is better off the scene, better off dead, from the perspective of a dedication to the status quo: business as usual and normal operations. I have suggested in a recent post that Jesus, in his manipulation of currency, subverted an invitation to subversion and the sovereignty of Caesar (a reading of Matt. 22), and also subverted the sovereignty of the Temple (a reading of Matt. 17). The historical critical method can only do numismatics (and locate Torah-sources and traditions) for these interesting pericopes, and while its true that Matthew's 'render unto Caesar' find itself within the broader Synoptic tradition and therefore more amenable to the method, the Temple tax pericope is attested only in Matthew, and of less interest to historical method where it bears even less fruit. Since Roman and Temple taxes persisted well after Jesus left the scene, even unto the demise of both, one might rightfully wonder just what kind of subversion I am identifying here (and in the gospels in general).

The last thing I am interested in is reducing Jesus and the Christ-event to the merely subversive. That approach has been done and leaves us with a failed political rebel among countless other failed rebels in the dust bin of history. The Christian tradition certainly acknowledges the political and economic dimension of the challenges Jesus presented to his time and place, but it does not understand that dimension apart from the announcement of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Incarnation and the Redemption (and indeed so much more). Nonetheless, the 'coin tricks' at Capernaum and Jerusalem in their own way announce the Kingdom that unconditionally lays claim to any and all earthly kingdoms. At Capernaum, Jesus makes a coin appear, and at Jerusalem he makes a coin disappear. So where is the subversion?

"Show me the money," says Jesus to the Pharisees' disciples and the Herodians (Matt. 22:19). Reading the image on the coin, Jesus identifies Caesar, and the coin disappears into the coffers of the Roman treasury. All that remains is the possibility that something might appear that belongs to God. "The way of God according to the truth" stands against the trap---the invitation to insurrection, subversion---and subverts an invitation to a subversion of the "imperial tax" (Matt. 22:16-17). The subversion of a subversion leads only to 'marvel.' Caesar has his name all over the denarius, and Jesus asks his interrogators what God has His name all over: marvelous. Yet this marvel of Jesus' wisdom and authority exercises a new, exciting and very subversive sovereignty over the very structure of taxation. The currency of earthly kingdoms is devalued in Jesus' suddenly appearing Kingdom, which somehow dictates how it is to be used to open upon that which belongs to God.

The structure of taxation in the Temple cult fares no better than Rome's in the Kingdom of Jesus.  Matt. 17 presents an interaction absent in the other Synoptics. "What do you think, Simon, do kings tax their very own, or other than their own? Peter said, 'other than their own.' 'The children are exempt,' said Jesus." The logic of the Kingdom accomplishes two tasks here. The first condemns the Temple for taxing other than their own; the second removes the 'other than their own' to be children of another order. The Temple and its tax disown those from whom it collects. There is an unmistakable humorous tension in this moment. Peter doesn't want Jesus to be seen evading taxes, and Jesus wants Peter to catch a glimmer of the truth while avoiding offense. Ostensibly, the collectors of the Temple tax wait at the door. We think we know what will happen next: a fishing trip and eventual payment of the tax. The text moves on to the counting of brothers, and we are left to imagine how the payment is made.

The tradition of the temple tax finds its origins in the Mosaic codes (Ex. 30:11-16). In 1st century Palestine the temple tax was already a big business. The collectors will collect the tax or make some big trouble. Do they go fishing, too, I wonder; do they wait for Peter to return with the money? Returning to the Temple precincts without the money seems unlikely. Since they collect the tax from 'outside the family,' a family of wealth and privilege, those outside the family most likely have worked hard for the money, and the tax would be some kind of burden on them. That burden might even be constitutive of the tax. If so, Jesus sourcing the tax whence he does is already a bit subversive.  The collectors want coin, not fish, so either Peter needs to catch a fish and sell it fast, or find the coin exactly where Jesus locates it. If so, it's found money, perhaps even a lost Temple tax, especially if it is as Jesus says it would be: the exact denomination and value. Maybe one of these selfsame collectors dropped it in the lake at some point earlier in the story. Or maybe Jesus saw that one of the tax collectors dropped the coin where he stood, and winked that information to Peter who doesn't go fishing at all, but instead went dusting the threshold. Could be; who knows. Matthew tells us nothing of the actual hand-off of the tax. So, we are left with a rather pointed fishing trip and a coughed up shekel.

Unless, of course, this story, unique to Matthew, is not a numismatic piscatorial exercise at all; but a word to the wise. The Temple imposes its tax on ta me onta (cf. 1 Cor. 1), the 'nothings' of this world that make nothing out of ta onta, the 'somethings' of this world (cf. 1 Cor. 1:28). In the Kingdom of Jesus, a sovereignty without sovereignty exerts the power of weakness in the kingdoms of the earth.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven  [Matt. 5:3, 10]

The nothings, ta me onta, already are in the space and the conceptual field of the advent of the Kingdom, though they pay taxes in coin to the kings of the earth. Blessed are the taxed, those thought of as other, for they nullify the taxers and the children of kings. The Kingdom is like a stag drawn to the font of waters, as those who thirst for righteousness, the insisting 'pure call,' are drawn to the weak force of God.
The two coins found in these biblical fonts affirm forms of life within a Kingdom whose weakness overpowers the strong forces in those kingdoms where the commerce of taxation holds sway. The economy of the coin carries no weight with Jesus. The lingua franca of the Kingdom is of a different order, and while the coin of the koine is still something to the somethings, the nothings (suddenly in their midst) nullify the somethings, and allow what belongs to God to appear.

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