Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 22:15-22

Church and State 

The gospel lesson designated for this Lord’s Day is about politics. Let me just say that I have a strong conviction that I should avoid politics in the pulpit. But I have an equally strong conviction that I should not avoid the lessons appointed for the day. In this case, the second of these two convictions outweighs the first, and so we’ve chosen to face this rather fraught subject directly.

To say that politics, or, to be more exact, our politics, is divisive is to state the obvious. At no other time is this more obvious than during election season. Indeed, more than one person in recent weeks has expressed to me the wish that this election season would just go away. Haven’t we had enough already to upset us in 2020?

But I’m afraid it’s showing no sign of going away. We cannot avoid it, but rather have to address it. And for this we need wisdom. We need a balanced perspective for looking at things as they really are, and respond appropriately, as God’s people. Let us then turn our attention to our lessons in the expectation that we will find there what we need for these days and weeks that lie ahead.

Before we begin, however, let me anticipate an objection someone may raise: How do the experiences of an ancient people in a remote land relate to those that we are undergoing here and now? It’s a fair question. But here I am reminded of the observation New Testament scholar C.H. Dodd made: Jesus came into an historical situation that is genuinely typical. The forces that he confronted were such as are permanent in history: government, institutional religion, nationalism, and social unrest. That sounds familiar. Jesus’ world, at least in this regard, is not so very different from our own. In fact, in many ways, it is very similar.

The Pharisees and the Herodians approach Jesus. They want to engage him in political debate. These are politically connected people. Recall that in Jesus’ time the Jewish territories are under Roman rule. The Pharisees curried favor with the Romans to maintain their religious power. The Herodians were puppets of the Roman government. They derived their name from King Herod, the client king of the Roman-occupied territories of the Jewish nation.

As Americans, we all know where political debate can lead. We have our parties, our loyalties, our convictions, and our prejudices. Do we have the right ones or the wrong ones? It depends on the company we keep. If we are in politically mixed company, we have to be careful what we say; if we’re not, our opponents may verbally abuse us—or worse. Only last week I heard on the radio about an Iowan man whose family members will no longer speak to him because of his support for one of the two presidential candidates. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon in our current polarized political climate.

Jesus’ opponents attempt to disarm him by flattery. They let him know they expect him to be forthright, because he is truthful. He’s not a politician who curries favor with the powerful, he’s not an upstart who is swayed by popular opinion, he’s not a demagogue who says only what people want to hear. He is a sage who teaches the way of God.

Of course, they don’t mean any of this. They’re not being sincere. They’re only giving him false assurances that he’s in a safe space. They want him to let his guard down.  

“Tell us, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Behind the question is a covert attempt to draw Jesus out, to provoke him to betray his political loyalties. In the question is a trap. If his answer indicates that the is a supporter of the regime, then he is a traitor to his own people, who justifiably oppose the occupying force, and see the tax as a form of theft. But if his answer indicates that he is an opponent of the regime, then he is an enemy of the state, open to the charge of sedition, which carries the death penalty.

Since he can see into their hearts, he knows their question comes from malicious intent. He calls them hypocrites, because they only pretend to be concerned about the truth. In actual fact, they care nothing about the truth, only about the rules of the game they are cynically playing with the Romans. They know that if they are shrewd about these rules, they personally benefit.  

The answer Jesus gives is ingenious. He asks them for a denarius. Now a denarius was a small Roman coin on which the image of the emperor Tiberius was stamped. The inscription read: “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.” On the tail side of the coin was an image of the “high priest” Livia. The coin bears the image of Caesar; therefore, the coin belongs to Caesar. With a single stroke, Jesus clears himself of the charge that he’s an enemy of the state. He’s not leading a rebellion. He’s a good citizen who submits himself to the laws of the land.

But that is not all he says. To this he adds: give to God what belongs to God. Here he shows himself to be loyal to his own people, faithful to his Jewish heritage. “Serve only the Lord your God and fear him alone.” There is always and only God and beside him there is no other. No human power can usurp his place, or relativize his claims on us and on this world that belongs to him, not even the Roman emperor, despite the fact that his subjects hailed him as lord and god.

The answer he gives reduces his opponents to silence. They can’t catch him out. They can’t find a basis for a charge against him. Amazed at his verbal agility, they leave the scene.

What do we learn from this exchange that we can apply to our own situation? It’s clear from the response of Jesus to his opponents that two orientations to politics emerge. We propose them here to God’s people for consideration. The first is characterized by freedom, the second by restraint.

By the first we mean that nothing forbids God’s people from participating in the political process. Jesus’ words “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” gives us a green light here. If we pay taxes, we have a “say” as to how our elected representatives spend our money. There is really no basis in the New Testament for retreating from the state, for withdrawing support from state institutions. The Apostle Paul tells us that the governing authorities are established by God. They are God’s servant for our well-being (Rom. 13:4). That is why Paul counsels the church in Rome to pay taxes. Taxpayers have a stake in the political order. It is understandable, then, that many people, Christians and non-Christians alike, are passionate about political causes, and work tirelessly to promote them.

That leads us to our second point. Giving to Caesar must always remain distinct from giving to God. In our day we perhaps have less a problem with quietism than with making our politics God’s politics. People are so passionate about their causes, about their blueprints for “making America great again” or “building back better,” that they seem to believe that their acceptance will mean life from the dead. Or they are so hopeful about a political candidate that his election will somehow mean the salvation of the nation.

But can we really make a heaven on earth? Can we restore a lost Eden? Can a mere human being or a mere political party save us? There is a real danger here. But when we collapse the distinction between Caesar and God, when we make the mistaken assumption that by giving to Caesar we are thereby giving to God, we expose ourselves to this danger. That is why the second orientation to politics that our lesson teaches is no less valuable than the first. We participate freely in politics, but we always do so with restraint. The Christian social ethicist Andre Bieler reminds us that no political project can pass as absolute and sacred. No temporal order, neither present nor future, can ever claim full identity with the kingdom of God. In this regard, the Presbyterian Church’s Confession of 1967, which is contained in the Book of Confessions, states:

Although nations may serve God’s purpose in history, the church which identifies the sovereignty of any one nation or any one way of life with the cause of God denies the Lordship of Christ and betrays its calling.

 

History teaches us that when people make this identification, disaster follows. The state becomes destructive of life when it demands total commitment, unconditional obedience, or unquestioning allegiance. If you read modern history, you have only to read about the horrors of the great totalitarian dictatorships of the twentieth century to be convinced. We are to worship God alone, and him only are we to serve, even if that makes us unpopular, even when that makes us the targets of persecution.

To worship God alone—this comes to us first from the Mosaic law. It means, among other things, to give to God first place in our hearts. Our Old Testament lesson for this Lord’s Day gives us a good illustration of this. Moses wants to know God. He wants a deeper revelation of God. He wants to know God’s ways. Granted, Moses has a vested interest in persuading God to go up with the people. There are many political and military challenges that lie ahead, and the people look to Moses to lead them, and Moses in turn looks to God to give them success. But there is more going on here. There is a personal connection between God and Moses. Moses has found favor in God’s sight, and God knows him by name. Moses wants to know God for God’s own sake. Stan Mast, pastor at LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, reminds us that what we need most of all as we wander through the wilderness of this world with its broken politics is God. When we come to this realization, then we come to this balanced perspective on the world of politics, on looking at things as they really are.  

But where does that leave us practically? How should God’s people be politically involved? We should always refer all things in our lives to the Lordship of Christ, including our politics. That means we should always be asking ourselves: where is Christ at work among us? The gospel tells us that he is with all those who suffer, who are oppressed, whose dignity is violated, whose basic rights are denied. The church must follow its Lord’s example. These are the people that Jesus sought out, these are the people whom he served, whom he healed, to whom he gave hope, to whom he promised his kingdom.

Maybe this is what it means to give to God what belongs to God. Recall that in the case of the coin Jesus asked his opponents about its image and superscription. We can do the same in the case of the human being. Whose image and superscription does the human being bear? Scripture tells us that human beings are created in God’s image. That is what gives them an inviolable worth and dignity. That is why the church should always advocate for the least of these. They belong to God. They are precious to God. And God proves how precious they are to him by sending into this world Jesus Christ, who came to redeem them and us. When we keep all this before us, our politics, the church’s politics, is a sign and harbinger of God’s kingdom, where justice and peace and unity and freedom will finally prevail. Let us in this election season not lose sight of this kingdom.

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