“Does Your Teacher Not Pay the Tax?”

I have been working through Oliver O’Donovan’s The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology very slowly. It is a dense book, but a really enjoyable read. I love how he reads scripture and what he does with it in his narrative (giving me much to think about for my contemplated books on David, and Judges, and the church), and so I’m going to deal with this book a chapter at a time. (Unlike last time, when I did two chapters together, thinking that would work with this book.)

I’m currently reading the third chapter, “Dual Authority and the Fulfilling of the Time,” and I’ll deal with the entire chapter in a day or two. But O’Donovan writes about some things here that is near and dear to my theological heart — how did Jesus view and deal with political authority in his day?

O’Donovan looks at two stories — when Jesus is asked “is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matt 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-27, Luke 20:20-38), and a then a story solely in Matthew, typically titled “The Temple Tax,” which O’Donovan says actually tells us more about Jesus’ approach to state power:

24 When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two- drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” 25 He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” 26 And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. 27 However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.” (Matthew 17:24-27 ESV)

Jesus advises paying the tax, not because the taker of the tax has a legitimate legal or moral claim, but because it’s the polite (and maybe even neighborly) thing to do (“However, not to give offense to them…”). Jesus has already proclaimed the coming of the kingdom (Matt 3:17), so O’Donovan notes that the old order — that of Herod and the Romans — is passing away. It doesn’t matter whether that order is paid any respect or not.

Jesus … believed that a shift in the locus of power was taking place, which made the social institutions that had prevailed to that point anachronistic. His attitude toward them was neither secularist nor zealot: since he did not concede they had any future, he gave them neither dutiful obedience within their supposed sphere of competence nor the inverted respect of angry defiance. He did not recognize a permanently twofold locus of authority. He recognized only a transitory duality which belonged to the climax of Israel’s history, a duality between the coming and the passing order. The Two Cities [referring to Augustine], with their concomitant Two Rules expressing Israel’s alienation from its calling, gave way to Two Eras. The coming era of god’s rule held the passing era in suspension. (p. 93)

There’s a lot more in this chapter worth looking at, and I will when I finish with it (O’Donovan focuses largely on Jesus’ calling and identity in the context of Israel’s history and experience of empire).

But O’Donovan has really hit something here, on Jesus’ non-interest in challenging or using or working with the existing (but doomed) order. It will be interesting to see what O’Donovan does with this later in the book. This approach to the existing order — to government and the state — ought to be the basis of our approach as church. O’Donovan wrote earlier that our history as church, as the called-out people of God, is unintelligible without knowing Israel’s history in scripture. Because Israel’s history is the history of the church. Which means the church, which once stood atop the world in much the way Solomon reigned over a vast and powerful Israelite state, is also a failed polity, and is bound for conquest and exile because of its sinfulness and its faithlessness. And only because of its sinfulness and faithlessness. Modernity and all it brings, then, are God’s judgment upon the church, much as the Assyrians and Babylonians enacted God’s judgment upon sinful Israel. They are not a force to be fought, or countered, or even successfully negotiated with anymore than Assyria or Babylon were.

They are to be encountered, endured, and survived. Because the faithfulness of God, the promises of God, are not for the here and now, not for those of us under siege, but to the future remnant who will rebuild after the exile. Because Modernity is no more a permanent foe than Assyria or Babylon, the Seleucids or the Romans. It is not a permanent thing. As real as its presence is, as destructive as it is, it is a transitory thing. It is passing. It is not the Kingdom of God.

This is why I cannot be a conservative culture warrior, because to be a culture warrior is to focus on the sinfulness of the culture, rather than the church. In Israel’s history, the sinfulness of others — of those who are not Israel — is only a problem in so far as Israel embraces that sin and makes that sin its own. The gods of others will always temp Israel away from the worship of יהוה. There is a scripturally legitimate approach to “the culture war” to be found in Judges, I think, but given the character of some of Israel’s deliverers in Judges — Jephthah, Samson — I’m not sure conservative culture warriors would easily embraced being delivered by such folks.

And the deliverance of the Judges was never permanent.

(Well, this went someplace I really didn’t want it to go when I started writing…)

3 thoughts on ““Does Your Teacher Not Pay the Tax?”

  1. This is a crucial and fascinating point, which I am only beginning to appreciate: that the power of this world and its culture is not to be endorsed nor opposed because it is transitory and irrelevant – perceptibly fading in significance. The power of the Kingdom of God and the gospel is so great, and so real for those have faith, that it is the proper focus of our attention, other things being rarely more than distractions. [The duties of love to those around us are, of course, not distractions, but part of the substance of the Kingdom.]

    This ghostly quality of the power of this world reminds me of the irascible physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who lost patience with a poor grad student’s talk and interrupted, declaring that this mess of a presentation was “not even false” [gar nicht falsch] It didn’t rise to the level of fallacious position needing to be disproved.

    • Yeah, it’s taken me a while to get there too. That it is not to be endorsed — as if God needs it and cannot function without it — nor stridently opposed, as if somehow God’s work will be hindered if it persists. We are to be about our Father’s work, wherever we find ourselves. And whatever place see find ourselves in.

  2. These reflections give me a new appreciation of “the kingdom of God is at hand” or “upon us”. Not only is the power of God all around us, but so is the work of the kingdom. The fields are white, so we should go be the gospel.

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