By REV. LUNA L. DINGAYAN
“Give unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar; Give unto God what belongs to God” – Mark 12:17
Rural Life Emphasis Month
Celebrating Rural Life Emphasis Month in this month of July could not escape the issue of land. Feudal bondage that caused armed uprisings and revolutions throughout Philippine history remains to be a big issue among rural people, especially in areas where vast tracks of land are owned by a few landed elite. Obviously, the government’s land reform programs have not been able to resolve the feudal bondage imposed upon hapless rural people.
Feudal bondage has something to do with how people relate with the land or better still how people deal with others in relation to the land. Theologically, feudal bondage stems from the human desire to make oneself the center of the world, rather than to recognize God’s lordship over all creation. It is reflected in how people try to outdo each other in order to gain the whole world, even though this would mean losing their own soul (cf. Lk.12:13-21). Such greed spawns a kind of social or economic stratification which would render people outcasts, landless or deprived of the blessings of the land. Consequently, the land is concentrated in the hands of a few who follow the law of the jungle – survival of the fittest and elimination of the unfit – in order to dominate and exploit the land and the people.
Feudal bondage, therefore, concerns more of the relationship of people than of land. If the relationship of people is characterized by greed and selfishness, definitely their relationship to the land will be a relationship of domination and exploitation. Hence, the land becomes a captive land, a land in feudal bondage, because the people have become a captive of the powers-that-be. The system of relationship, therefore, must be changed so that the people, as well as the land, will be free.
Feudal bondage was not new to the Israelites during Jesus’ time. The Israelites were a people whose history was characterized by foreign domination and domestic exploitation. Powerful empires took turns in dominating and exploiting them – from the Egyptians to the Assyrians and Babylonians, then the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. Not only foreign rulers but also their own kings grabbed their lands and rendered many of them poor and landless (cf. I Kings 21).
When the Book of Leviticus was written in the Exilic Period, at the time when the Israelites were under the Babylonians and they were seriously reflecting on what happened to their own country, one of the main provisions of this book of holiness was the declaration of the Year of Jubilee.
Freedom from feudal bondage was one of the provisions of the Jubilee Year. Leviticus 25:10 says, “You shall set the fiftieth year apart and proclaim freedom to all the inhabitants of the land. During this year, all property that has been sold shall be restored to the original owner or the descendants, and any who have been sold as slaves shall return to their families”.
Indeed, the Jubilee Year is a beautiful declaration of social and economic reforms. But the problem is that it was never implemented. That’s why from time to time, the prophets of old, including Jesus Christ our Lord, were calling for the realization of the Jubilee Year. It is not only to declare it in words but to fulfill it in deeds.
Zealots’ Battle Cry
Before Jesus’ time, Judas the Galilean organized an armed movement to continue the struggles of the Israelites against foreign domination and exploitation and to restore the Davidic Kingdom. It was called the Zealot Movement. The Zealot ideal was to set Israel free – the land and the people – from the hands of the Romans so that they could restore once again the Davidic Kingdom. They used arms and launched guerrilla warfare to pursue their vision. They staged two major Jewish rebellions in Palestine: one in year 66 CE (Common Era) and another in year 132 CE, which led to the expulsion of all Jews from Palestine as ordered by Emperor Hadrian. They became a people without a nation until 1948, when the League of Nations upon the recommendation of the U.S. and Great Britain, allowed them to return to their homeland.
During Jesus’ time, the Zealots had a motto that was common among the masses of people in Galilee: “Give unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, Give unto God what belongs to God”. This simply means that the people must never give to Caesar what belongs to God.
Mark 12:13-17 mentions about this Zealot motto. The immediate context of this Biblical text is a trap question raised by some Pharisees and Herodians regarding Roman taxes. In response to this question, Jesus used the motto of the Zealots. They were asking Jesus whether or not they should pay taxes to the Roman Caesar. It must be noted that Palestine in Jesus’ time was a colony of the Roman Empire and coinage was used as a sign of imperial power. Where imperial power was recognized, there the Roman coinage was valid. In a sense, the coin was the Emperor’s property, because it had on it the Emperor’s head and inscription. By giving back the coin to the emperor, one was actually giving to him what was rightfully his own.
However, there are spheres of human life which do not belong to the Roman Caesar. And therefore they must not be given to him. The Israelites believed that the whole of Palestine belongs to God, and therefore, it must not be given to the Roman Caesar. More than a hundred years before the birth of Jesus, the so-called Maccabean Revolutionaries, the forerunners of the Zealots, launched an armed rebellion based on such ideology that successfully drove away from the Greeks from Palestine. Now, the Zealots were again staging a similar rebellion because of the strong belief that God’s Kingdom on earth, the Kingdom of David could not be established with the Romans still controlling the land which was supposed to be God’s gift to His people.
Moreover, the Israelites also claimed that they were God’s people. They had a covenant with God. This means that their ultimate loyalty was to God and not to the Roman Caesar. To serve the interests of the Roman Caesar over and above the interests of God and the people was to be a traitor not only to the people but also to God Himself. This was the reason why the tax collectors, like Zacchaeus, were despised and rejected by the people (Cf. Lk. 19).
Land and Freedom
Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and Herodians was not merely a tricky answer to a tricky question. It was rather a profound articulation of what a Christian believer must do with regards to the Caesars of all time. It is a timely reminder even for us Christians today. For most often than not we are also tempted to give to the modern-day Caesars even those that belong to God.
There are two things I would like to point out related to feudal bondage that we are tempted to give to modern-day Caesars: our land and our freedom.
Let’s take, first of all, the land. The land is a gift of God. The land belongs to God. God is the Creator of the heavens and the earth (cf. Gen.1). We do not own the land. We are simply God’s stewards of the land. It is the height of human hypocrisy and arrogance to claim that we own the land simply because we have legal papers on it. Those who invented this legal system of land aggression and ownership do not really understand what land means.
It is even worse if we would sell the land or give it to modern-day Caesars and empire-builders, depriving ourselves and our people living in the land of its blessings. All the land scams and land conflicts that pervade our political and economic life today are deeply rooted in the fact that we have somehow given to the Caesars the things that are God’s, and have seriously forgotten that land ultimately belongs to God Himself.
Moreover, freedom like land also belongs to God. Land and freedom go together. When God gives us the land, He also gives us the freedom to take care of it. If and when we would give our land to the modern-day Caesars, we are also in effect giving them our freedom.
God created humanity in freedom. When God gave to Adam and Eve the Garden of Eden, God also gave them the freedom to take care of that beautiful garden, and enjoy its blessings. It is in the freedom that humanity finds real fulfillment. Freedom is that which makes us truly human. It is in the freedom that human creativity is realized. If and when our freedom would be taken from us, God through His chosen servants will set us free as He did to the Israelites in Exodus.
Now, what does it mean to be free? To be free is to have the right to shape our own destiny as a people, and to take care of the land God has entrusted to us in ways that will sustain and enhance life. In other words, to be free is to be liberated from feudal bondage. If our destiny as a people would be dictated by the imperialist powers, the modern-day Caesars and their powerful coinage or financial systems and institutions, then, we are not truly free, even though we claim to have our own flag, our own constitution, celebrate Independence Day with all pomposity, and conduct elections too often.
More than that, the essence of freedom is life. The moment life is denied of us, then, we are not truly free. If we would give more priority to arms than farms as the peasants are saying, then we are not truly free. If we would give our people’s source of livelihood – the land – to foreign powers, then we are not truly free.
Jesus Christ our Lord is right, indeed, when he said: “Give unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar; Give unto God what belongs to God”. Never give to the Caesars of today what belongs to our God – our land and our freedom. Amen. # nordis.net