“So, Let’s talk politics.” Is there are a more anxiety producing phrase these days? When I have shared the title of this sermon with folks this week, the reactions have been priceless. We approach an election in which personal convictions and partisan positions are taken more personally than ever—and that really is saying something. Here at McLean Baptist, with the number of government and former government jobs in this congregation, elections always feel personal. This year, however, it is fair to say that things feel different. And in truth, things are more complicated than ever.
Unfortunately, once you commit to Christ, you have decided to make your politics complicated. Or maybe it’s better to say that you commit to making your politics simple and your living complicated. I have said many times that the gospel is deeply and unapologetically political, but
it is never partisan. The cause of Christ is not beholden to one particular political ideology, nationality, fiscal policy, or president. The kingdom of God has only one king. To say Jesus is Lord, is to say that Caesar isn’t; to say that God is our Father, is to say that Caesar isn’t; and I think it worth remembering that either of those two simple political confessions brought a sentence of death to the early Christians. The gospel is deeply and unapologetically political, and it sometimes complicates our living.
And it always has. If you have been lucky enough in your life to isolate the message of the gospel from politics, then either you are coming from a place of isolation afforded by privilege, or you have too limited a definition of gospel. Because if you’ve ever prayed, “Thy kingdom
come, thy will be done on earth” you have prayed a deeply political prayer, whether you realize it or not.
The election is coming, and the stakes seem high this year, but don’t worry. It’s nothing new. The stakes have always been high. The political implications of the gospel have always been making people uncomfortable. The gospel has always been in the business of calling out
those who twist the gospel message for their own political gain—who misuse their wealth and their power to exploit—who decide to wear God’s name but worship the “gods” of this world. Whether it is challenging them like in Ps 96, or calling them idols and reminding them
that “Yahweh reigns!”, or it is calling out the religious leadership in the temple, calling them hypocrites, and reminding them that “God is king,” the gospel will resist every effort we make to compartmentalize and domesticate it.
Political questions are so often used as a litmus test for faith. “Well, how do you feel about X?” And people insert whatever concern “X” is to find out what team people are on. And sometimes political questions are used as “gotcha” questions in an attempt to expose someone when we already know what team they’re on.
In the first three gospels, the week of the crucifixion is a week of litmus test questions for Jesus. It’s finals week. Group after group comes to Jesus and challenges him in various ways and various topics, some perhaps trying to test him, and plenty trying to expose him. Of course,
Jesus handles each test as it comes. Today’s test, however, is one located squarely in that sticky area of politics. In a world where disloyalty brings death, Jesus is being challenged about just how much loyalty to the state a person should show.
The tax which is being asked about in this passage (Matthew 22:15-22) is the annual head tax paid to the occupying force. It is a painful, regular, oppressive reminder of the Roman occupation. To endorse it would certainly hurt him in the eyes of his audience and compromise Jesus’ claim as “Messiah.”
People are looking to him to get rid of the Romans. You can’t call yourself the “Son of Man,” and then endorse financially supporting the occupying force. Of course, refusing to pay the tax could get him in immediate trouble with the authorities, and certainly be a charge his opponents could lay against him with the occupying government. In fact, when Luke tells the story of the trial, Jesus’ opponents accuse him of exactly that crime “forbidding paying taxes to the emperor.” A radical position like that is the sort of thing that could get one crucified.
Jesus calls these people who are testing him “hypocrites”, but the careful reader will be able to spot that without the epithet. While we don’t know exactly who the Herodians were, they are generally thought to be individuals who owe any position and power they might have to their support of Herod the Great and later to his son Herod Antipas. These King Herods (or is it Kings Herod?), are only in power because of Roman occupation, so these Herodians would have absolutely no objection to paying the annual Roman census tax. They get nice things for their support of Rome. The Pharisees, on the other hand, were the outsiders when it came to power, for the most part. They were very popular among the common people, influential, certainly, but a minority party on the Sanhedrin and absolutely messianic. The Pharisees were generally looking forward to the Messiah who would come and restore native rule of Israel. They wanted a king like David who would come and move out these oppressors like the Romans and the opportunists
like Herod. The Pharisees would have a huge theological issue paying this census tax. These two Jewish sectarian groups, the Pharisees and Herodians, would have absolutely irreconcilable views on this issue, and it’s not like there’s any middle ground here. You either support the Roman occupation, or you don’t.
And yet, here in this passage, they are working together. It is clear in this passage that conviction and integrity—even deeply held theological positions—mean absolutely nothing to these people when they’re faced with Jesus. A former colleague of mine liked to say that the only people who really understood Jesus were the ones who killed him. “If this guy’s right, we’re out. He’s got to go.” When faced with possible threats to their popularity, to their position and their power, they are willing to compromise everything they said they believed in for the hope of holding on to power for one day more. Well, I guess Jesus is in the business of bringing people together. In this case, uniting them in their hypocrisy.
Jesus not only spots their hypocrisy, but he also exposes it. Not simply by calling them hypocrites. You might recall the second commandment that we read just a few weeks ago. It is pretty clear on the issue of graven images. No cast or carved image of anything is permitted. Graven images had been a problem for ancient Israel from the time of Moses all the way to the exile, but following the exile, 600 years before this encounter, Israel was cured of its physical idolatry. Israel didn’t have idols in their temples or their homes. They didn’t use coinage that might compromise that commandment...unless of course, you are beholden to and supporting an occupying power. When Jesus says, “Show me a coin” and they offer him a coin, the quiet part just got said out loud.
Here are Pharisees and Herodians standing side by side and they actually have a coin—a coin with the emperor’s face! Oh, sure, they say Jesus is teaching the way of God in accordance with the truth, but the crowd can now see that they don’t care anything about God’s truth. They don’t care at all about this “new kingdom” that Jesus is talking about. They can’t even follow the rules of the old kingdom.
The crowd can now see that they are able to produce a coin which shows they have no regard for the commandments of God. At least, they don’t have regard for the commandments of God when they can personally gain by following the commandments of Caesar. For the sake of political power, they have compromised their convictions to work together. For the sake of political power, they have completely set aside what they say they believe in, and these leaders in Israel, flagrantly violate the second commandment.
Just carrying the coin would have called them out, but in case there were some folks in the crowd who weren’t following, Jesus decides to make it explicit, “Whose icon—whose image appears and whose inscription?” They answer, “Caesar.” Really?! Caesar?! The most powerful man in the world, who has no regard for the commands of God—the most powerful man in the world violating the most basic commandment, one that Jewish followers have taken seriously for at least the last 600 years? That’s whose image is on it? Well, give him what he’s due, and give God what God is due.
This answer is genius. It’s open enough to interpretation to keep Jesus out of trouble for at least a few more days. But in the end, it’s revealing a powerful truth.
Unfortunately, too often this answer has been used to argue that Jesus is advocating some civil/state realm that can be totally separated from religious obligation. But this text is not a call to compartmentalization, which is a shame, because we are very good at compartmentalization.
We are so good at pretending that all these parts of our lives are separate—church life, work life, school life. As though they are Venn diagrams that never intersect.
But this text is not a call to some sort of proto church/state separation. Mainly because there was no separation of any kind in the minds of the ancients. There was no natural/supernatural division in their minds. There was no secular/religious. There was no civil/church separation.
God was always moving in all things. God permeated all life, and commitment to God needed to permeate our whole lives.
I earnestly believe this command of Jesus is a calling out of these selfish opportunists and offering a condemnation of the emperor. This cruel despot who thinks of himself as the benevolent father of the whole empire. This one, who is not even trying to follow the commandments of God, as evidenced in the coinage—and frankly every other aspect of his life. Humanity bears God’s image, but the emperor wants everything to be about him. The children of God should bear God’s name with meaning, but the emperor wants his name on the money.
You know, there are so many things that people got wrong, over and over, but Israel had actually kicked the “no graven images” rule. For 600 years, they had been getting it right. And not only does the emperor not get it or not care, but the religious leadership have also thrown in with him as well, compromising any integrity they might have had. What I think many of Jesus’ original audience heard when he said, “Give to Caesar what is due Caesar and to God what is due God.” Is “why don’t you let the things that are outside God’s will, stay outside God’s will, and let the children of God be the children of God.”
I think it’s pretty easy to see that interpretation. I mean, I’m willing to be corrected on that if you can tell me just exactly what area of life is not due God. Please list for me the areas of life, of this world, of us that God is not king of. Just exactly what is outside God’s authority? If this is a lesson on how to divide up the pie for God and Caesar, then we should remember the lesson that “you can’t serve two masters.”
I have always been troubled by politicians, and there have been several, perhaps most famously John F. Kennedy, who when challenged on how their faith would affect their governing said that their faith would not impact their governing decisions. I understand the political need to offer that answer, but this always makes me want to ask, if your faith doesn’t impact the decisions you will make, then exactly what kind of faith is it?
Commitment to God is all consuming. In the Old Testament it is clear that the worship of God is demonstrated by what is done in the Tabernacle and Temple, yes. But it is also demonstrated by the food you eat, the clothes you wear—yes, and also how you treat the refugee and the person with no rights in that society, like the orphan or widow.
No one in that crowd thought that Jesus was advocating some sort of church and state separation. Everyone in that crowd heard Jesus speak and believed their call was to oppose Caesar and what he stood for when he was against the instruction of God. And these who are supposed to be leaders—who have Caesar’s coinage in their pocket—are part of the problem. I earnestly believe this is Jesus throwing shade at these men who came to test him. They serve God with their lips but have an image of Caesar in their pocket rather than the image of God in their lives.
We are called to bear the image of God in our lives. In every decision we make. There is nothing that we hold privately. No part of our life that isn’t rendered to God.
Of course, that makes things complicated. “But I live in the real world!” So did Jesus. “People just don’t work that way.” Jesus was people—it’s one of our foundational beliefs as Christians. “This will call me to change everything I have believed my whole life.” Maybe. But that’s normal because, “I have been crucified in Christ, and I no longer live but Christ lives in me. The life I live now, I live by faith in the one who gave his life for me.”
The truth is “politics” is just another word for “the way we decide to do things together.” We owe it to God, like we owe everything else. In every decision we make, inside the voting booth and outside the voting booth, reflect love of God and love of neighbor, bring justice, mercy, and humble love. May we cast aside anything that might appeal to Caesar and give everything to God. Because all things belong to the one who made us.
Rev. Dr. Robert Wallace is senior pastor, McLean Baptist Church, McLean, Virginia.
Excerpted from Preaching During Covid-tide: Sermons of Hope to Empty Pews. Copyright © 2021. Used by permission.
Photo by Joakim Honkasalo on Unsplash