‘Give to Caesar’: Jesus, Politics, and Uncle Sam

It’s Election Day here in the United States, and the presidency—our nation’s highest office—is on the ballot again. This happens every four years, but the campaign never seems to end. In fact, tomorrow the presidential push for 2024 will begin anew. Few people look forward to this quadrennial spectacle, but that’s how we roll in the good ole U.S.A. The nation is severely polarized again, and many of us have grown weary of the incessant political theater. It’s in our faces every day, depending on what we allow on our screens. The OFF button is a beautiful thing.

I was voter #262 this morning at our polling place. The line was long, but the volunteers were doing an excellent job of keeping us moving. Nearly everyone in our section was showing some form of I.D. to the registrars even though it’s not legally required. We were showing it on principle—a minor protest of sorts. Many of us thought identification should be required to vote. How do they know it’s really us? That should matter not only here in the battleground state of Pennsylvania, but in every state in the union.

Some people live and breathe politics. I do not. Some people ignore the process altogether. I do not. A famous scene from the life of Jesus grants me the posture of balanced engagement from a thoughtful distance—one that’s realistic, non-Utopian, participatory, and respectful. If others wish to be more engaged, so be it. Good government requires good people. The encounter in Mark 12:13-17 reads as follows:

13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. 17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him. 

Here in the West, there are two things we usually don’t talk about in polite company—politics and religion. The reason for that is obvious. The subject of politics is controversial, so we tend to avoid it to keep the peace. The subject of religion is controversial, too, so we tend to avoid it for the same reason. (It’s not like this everywhere in the world, but it is here, so we go with the flow, looking for gospel opportunities whenever they might present themselves.)

Instead of talking about politics and religion at work and family gatherings, we talk about the weather, sports, hobbies, technology, pop culture, and the latest news coming out of the Kardashian family. We stay shallow so we don’t have to argue. But even more controversial than the subject of politics or religion themselves is the subject of politics and religion together. What is the proper relationship between the two? Raise that issue, and there’s a grenade ready to explode.

As it is today, so it was in the 1st century. When Mark 12 opens, Jesus is responding to a barrage of questions, and one of those questions is basically this: “Jesus, what are your politics? And how do your politics relate to your religion?” We expect an explosion, and we get one, but not the kind we might have expected. The questioners raise a specific hot button issue to smoke Jesus out politically. They’re trying to get him to come down on one side of the aisle or the other. “Jesus, are you red or blue? Are you liberal or conservative? Are you with us or with them?”

Jesus says in response (Tim’s paraphrase): “You know, guys, this isn’t my circus, and these aren’t my monkeys. And, while you’re at it, ‘Send in the clowns. Don’t bother, they’re here.’”

Well, maybe his response isn’t that derisive, but he does deal with the question obliquely—intentionally so. He has to teach them something before making a pronouncement on policy. Something more important than politics. Here are a few takeaways from the passage for me, presented in outline form:

1. Jesus rejects political SIMPLICITY.

That is, political sloganeering isn’t going to work with Jesus.

a.  Jesus is asked a “gotcha question” by strange bedfellows; it’s a clear trap rooted in the controversial head tax implemented 25 years earlier, which launched a bloody revolt led by Judas the Galilean.

b.  If Jesus says, “No, don’t pay the tax,” he would reveal himself to be a zealot, calling for an armed revolt against the state and the establishment of a new earthly kingdom.

c.  If Jesus says, “Yes, pay the tax,” he would reveal himself to be a mystic, calling for total compliance to the state and the establishment of a new (merely) spiritual kingdom.

d.  If Jesus says, “I won’t answer the question at all,” he would reveal himself to be a cynic, calling for a total abandonment of the state and the establishment of a new cloistered kingdom.

e.  Jesus doesn’t dodge the question in the end; rather, he reframes it in order to set forth a higher understanding of the kingdom of God.

2. Jesus rejects political COMPLACENCY.

That is, political abandonment isn’t going to work with Jesus.

a.  Using the coin that’s given to him, Jesus teaches that “Caesar” is entitled to a certain amount of allegiance from the citizens under his authority.

b.  Jesus does not allow his followers to “opt out of the system” and become completely non-political; they are called to function within the established order of the day. 

c.  Jesus affirms that the state has a measure of legitimate authority to conduct its affairs and provide for the common good through taxation.

d.  The rest of the New Testament shows how the followers of Christ can function as good citizens in whatever country they live (e.g., Romans 13:1-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-2; 1 Peter 2:13-17).

3. Jesus rejects political PRIMACY.

That is, political Utopianism isn’t going to work with Jesus.

a.  Using the coin that is given to him, Jesus teaches that God, not “Caesar,” is entitled to ultimate allegiance from the people he has created. (You bear the image of God, so give yourself to God.)

b.  Jesus does not allow his followers to “depend on the system” and put all their hope in politics; they are called to address the ills of this world through spiritual means as well.

c.  Because the believer’s highest allegiance is to God, Jesus implies there are times when his followers may have to stand against “Caesar” and his requirements.

d.  The rest of the New Testament shows how the followers of Christ resisted the state, sometimes at great personal cost, when it usurped the authority of God (e.g., Acts 4:19-20, 5:28-29, 22:22-29; Rev 13:15).

Some Reflections

a.  The followers of Christ are to obey the earthy king—until that earthly king usurps the authority of the heavenly King.

b.  The brilliant and nuanced answer Jesus gives explodes our political categories. Believers are to be good citizens and loving revolutionaries at the same time.

c.  What could make a person both a good citizen and a loving revolutionary at the same time? Only Christ, and him crucified—the “King without a quarter,” as Tim Keller puts it.

d.  What kind of a king has no money? What kind of a king doesn’t have a quarter to his name such that he has to ask for one to be brought to him?

  • Only a King who is poor by choice.
  • Only a King who gives away his wealth.
  • Only a King who surrenders his power to empower others. 
  • Only a King who gives his life for the sake of the people he rules over.

e.  Unlike many politicians who amass power for themselves, King Jesus surrenders it all for the sake of a loving revolution—a revolution that actually revolutionizes revolutions.

f.  The Apostle Paul wrote: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

g.  Whatever the election results are tonight (or tomorrow, or in the coming days or weeks), King Jesus will still be on his throne.

So, who did I vote for today? As you probably could have guessed, I’m not going to tell you. It’s a secret ballot for a reason. And that’s especially important to me as a minister of Jesus Christ. If my politics ever become a stumbling block to others who do not yet know him, I have failed miserably in putting first things first. What I’m willing to reveal is what I’ve already written on the About page:

Political convictions? Yes, we have them, but we’re not completely sold on either of the major political parties in the United States. In fact, neither party wants us nor claims us as their own, and we’re o.k. with that. It allows us to address the issues of the day from a non-partisan, worldview perspective. It also allows us to practice civil disobedience when our conscience demands it, as happens periodically throughout the Scriptures.

Sometimes we think the Republicans are right. Sometimes we think the Democrats are right. All the time we think King Jesus is right. In the end, we believe that politics, like humanity, is broken, so we pray for all the civil magistrates and governing officials as the Bible directs, even the ones we severely disagree with. Let’s aim higher and find another way to be friends.

Image Credits: mycanyonlake.com; rectorymusings.co.uk; ldsliberty.org; pexels.com.

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