Posted by: mattcolvin | December 12, 2011

Jesus Doesn’t Regard the Face of a Man — or Does He?

Tuesday of the Third Week in Advent: Luke 20:19-26.

20 So they watched Him, and sent spies who pretended to be righteous, that they might seize on His words, in order to deliver Him to the power and the authority of the governor.
21 Then they asked Him, saying, “Teacher, we know that You say and teach rightly, and You do not show personal favoritism (Gk. Ού λαμβανεις προσώπον “you do not receive a face”) , but teach the way of God in truth: 22 Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
23 But He perceived their craftiness, and said to them, “Why do you test Me?[b] 24 Show Me a denarius. Whose image and inscription does it have?”
They answered and said, “Caesar’s.”
25 And He said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
26 But they could not catch Him in His words in the presence of the people. And they marveled at His answer and kept silent.

I’ve written about this pericope in Matthew before, but not in Luke.

In Matthew 22:16, it is both the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians ask Jesus their question about paying taxes to Caesar. I was impressed with N.T. Wright’s handling of this passage, suggesting that the coin for the tax, bearing Caesar’s picture and the words “so and so, son of a God”, was a very blasphemous and embarrassing object for any Jews to be found in possession of. (But then, this might be another reason why the Pharisees brought the Herodians along, besides having them represent the other horn of the dilemma they’re posing to Jesus: the Herodians might have no qualms about carrying around an idolatrous coin.)

At any rate, I noticed another buttressing bit of evidence for Wright’s reading, which is that in v. 16, the questioners say, “Teacher, we know that you are true, and you teach the way of God in the truth, and do not show favoritism for anyone, for you do not look upon the face of men. (…ou gar blepeis eis prosopon anthropon).” This last phrase is translated as “for you pay no attention to who (men) are” by the NIV. The ESV has “for you are not swayed by appearances.” The NASB, supposedly more literal than either of the others, is in fact the furthest from the original: “for you are not partial to any.” All these translations are trying to go “thought-for-thought” on this verse, but in so doing, they have missed a clever bit of diction. The word prosopon means “face” (and so by extension identity, as the NIV conveys). To be sure, the disciples of the Pharisees had only the metaphorical meaning “identity” in mind. But Jesus puns on their flattering words by asking them to show him the face on the coin — in other words, by “looking upon the face” of the man depicted on the coin, doing literally what they say he doesn’t do metaphorically.

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