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How Jesus Defeats the Establishment: Ivan Illich on Holy Indifference to Money and Power


Sandro Botticelli: Christ Crowned with Thorns

"Just before He started out on His public life, Jesus went to the desert. He fasted, and after 40 days he was hungry. At this point the diabolos appeared to tempt Him. First he asked Him to turn stone into bread, then to prove himself in a magic flight, and finally the devil, diabolos, 'divider,' offered Him power. Listen carefully to the words of this last of the three temptations: 'I give you all power and glory, because I have received them and I give them to those whom I choose. Adore me and the power will be yours' (Lk 4.6). "It is astonishing what the devil says: I have all power, it has been given to me, and I am the one to hand it on—submit, and it is yours. Jesus of course does not submit, and sends the devil-cum-power to Hell. Not for a moment, however, does Jesus contradict the devil. He does not question that the devil holds all power, nor that this power has been given to him, nor that he, the devil, gives it to whom he pleases. This is a point which is easily overlooked.

"By his silence Jesus recognizes power that is established as 'devil' and defines Himself as the Powerless. He who cannot accept this view on power, cannot look at establishments through the spectacle of the Gospel. This is what clergy and churches often have difficulty doing. They are so strongly motivated by the image of church as a 'helping institution' that they are constantly motivated to hold power, share in it or, at least, influence it.


"Churches also have their problems with a Jesus whose only economics are jokes. A savior undermines the foundations of any social doctrine of the Church. But that is what He does, whenever He is faced with money matters. According to Mark 12:13 there was a group of Herodians who wanted to catch Him in His own words. They ask 'Must we pay tribute to Caesar?' You know His answer: 'Give me a coin—tell me whose profile is on it!' Of course they answer "Caesar's.'


"The drachma is a weight of silver marked with Caesar's effigy. A Roman coin was no impersonal silver dollar; there was none of that "trust in God" or adornment with a presidential portrait. A denarius was a piece of precious metal branded, as it were, like a heifer, with the sign of the personal owner. Not the Treasury, but Caesar coins and owns the currency. Only if this characteristic of Roman currency is understood [does] one grasp the analogy between the answer to the devil who tempted Him with power and to the Herodians who tempt Him with money. His response is clear: abandon all that which has been branded by Caesar; but then, enjoy the knowledge that everything, everything else is God's, and therefore is to be used by you.


"The message is so simple: Jesus jokes about Caesar. He shrugs off his control. And not only at that one instance… Remember the occasion at the Lake of Capernaum, when Peter is asked to pay a two-penny tax. Jesus sends him to throw a line into the lake and pick the coin he needs from the mouth of the first fish that bites. Oriental stories up to the time of Thousand Nights and One Night are full of beggars who catch the fish that has swallowed a piece of gold. His gesture is that of a clown; it shows that this miracle is not meant to prove him omnipotent but indifferent to matters of money. Who wants power submits to the Devil and who wants denarii submits to the Caesar.


"This dropout from power and money is also a conscientious objector to force. Yet, just as he wants to be counted among the weak and the poor he also wants to be marginal, and be counted among the criminal. Listen to this. He spends his last night in a garden, on the mountain of olives. On the way he says to the company, 'Now, let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one... And they said, look Lord, here are two swords. And He said to them: It is enough.' That is what Luke (22.37) tells us. For decades I have puzzled over this passage. Why did Jesus want armed company? Then Jaques Ellul in a recent book that I am reading called my attention to the context, the following statement: "...so that the prophecy be fulfilled, and I be counted among the bandits." That explains it: two swords are not enough to defend a small troupe of rabbis and are certainly insufficient to organize an uprising. But they are more than enough to brand you as an outlaw.


"When, during the same night, the temple guards come to arrest him, Peter draws the sword, bungles the thrust, and cuts off the ear of a certain Malchus. Jesus glues it back and reprimands Peter. Not for missing but for attacking. He wants to submit to the Roman court, not because He recognizes its jurisdiction, but to show up the injustice of the best law courts of the time. Paul understood this. The established order of power is evil not because it is bad, but because it is a spiritual, demonic establishment in this world. The Kingdom of God is its opposite. Christ Jesus triumphs over the establishment, and does so by no half measures; his victory is achieved by submitting to the death on the cross."