Thanksgiving Day will soon be here! It’s a day when extended families gather together to feast on turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, creamed corn and cranberry sauce. This is an American tradition.
But in recent years, it has been a tradition fraught with tension, at least for many families. For we are a divided people. There has been a culture war raging in this country for many years now. The 2016 presidential election exacerbated those divisions. And the current war in Israel has certainly exposed the ugly political fault lines that still exist among us today.
In recent years, we have heard of families who have disinvited relatives, loved ones, to Thanksgiving and holiday gatherings, because of their political stances. Indeed, we may even be a member of one of those families.
The presence of these relatives at the table is potentially disruptive, because they may forcefully express their opinions on controversial issues that will upset us, and other relatives, who stand firmly on the opposing side.
Then, what should be a happy occasion of family togetherness turns sour, with loved ones leaving early with hurt feelings. Better to avoid them altogether than to risk putting them together with loved ones they will upset with their inflammatory diatribes.
We cannot avoid politics, even though sometimes we wish we could. But since we cannot, we should look to our faith to learn how we can best approach the subject.
Our gospel lesson for today yields valuable insight into the realm of faith and politics if we listen carefully to it.
The Pharisees want to engage Jesus in political debate. Only this is a pretext for what they really want. Their aim is to lure him into saying something that will fatally compromise him in the eyes of the people.
They set a trap by asking him a loaded question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
Let us recall that in Jesus’ time the holy land is occupied by a foreign power. It is a colony of the Roman empire.
All the people resented the Romans. But some less than others. Some benefited by collaborating with them. They defended the status quo, or at least they didn’t actively rebel against it.
Others, however, suffered under them, and even a few became revolutionaries, using violence against the colonizers and their collaborators.
No doubt some suspected that if Jesus allowed himself to be called Son of David, he could also be a revolutionary, or at least have the label pinned on him.
Let’s be clear about what’s at stake here. If Jesus really believed himself to be the Messiah, the Son of David, wouldn’t he have to put an end to Caesar’s pretentions, beginning with Caesar’s tax?
This is the assumption that the Pharisees entertained, an assumption that they planned to use against him as they conferred together on how to bring him down. No doubt they carefully prepped their disciples for the encounter. They then called some Herodians to join them, and sent them together to Jesus.
It is significant that both Pharisees and Herodians are mentioned here.
The sympathies of the former lie with Israel. They were patriots, opposed to the occupying power, even as they curried favor with the Romans to maintain their own position within it.
The sympathies of the latter lie with Rome. They derived their name from King Herod, the client king of the Roman-occupied territories of the Jewish nation. They are collaborators with the occupying power, from which they benefit.
Jesus is between a rock and a hard place. If he sides with the Pharisees, the Herodians can accuse him of subverting the established civil authority. They can condemn him as a revolutionary. But if he sides with the Herodians, then the Pharisees can accuse him of betraying his own people, God’s people, whom the Messiah is expected to liberate.
Either way he decides, he risks fatally compromising himself in the eyes of the people. Calvin here is right in observing: “Their chief aim is to alienate the people from him.”
Before posing the question, Jesus’ antagonists 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. He’s among “friends.” They want him to let his guard down.
But they miss the irony. Jesus is true. He does teach the way of God’s truth. He does not show deference to anyone. Nor does he regard anyone with partiality.
The original language here perhaps is more vivid. It is literally: “you do not care what anyone thinks. You don’t look at the face of men.”
Let us dwell on these words for a moment. They point up how different Jesus is from us. Most of us want to be true. Most of us want to act with integrity. But unlike Jesus, we do look into the faces of people, either in admiration or in fear, and we say or do according to what we read in their faces.
Author Alexander Beiner observes: “Socially, we’re often pressured into having a position that’s acceptable to our in-group. Under these pressures, something has to give in us, and the easiest solution is to go with the status quo.”
But we cannot say this of Jesus. He is fearlessly impartial and unbiased. He is true in his judgments, because his commitment to truth is as pure as his heart is pure. He’s not a people-pleaser or a chameleon (Frederick Dale Bruner).
Ironically, Jesus’ enemies will soon learn that their praise, even though they didn’t mean it, is all too true.
So “tell us, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”
Since Jesus can see into their hearts, he knows their question comes from a malicious place. 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 stand to benefit.
Jesus then 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.
“Whose head is this, and whose title?”
Parenthetically, let us point out that Jesus is not being vindictive. He doesn’t want to trap them in turn, or shame them by showing how foolish their abortive attempt to shame him really was. He is a master teacher, and invites his interrogators to participate in his audiovisual demonstration.
They answer, “the emperor’s.”
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
The answer Jesus gives is ingenious. 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 law-abiding citizen who submits himself to the laws of the land.
But that is not all he says. To this he adds: “give to God the things that are God’s.”
Here he shows himself to be loyal to his own people, faithful to his Jewish tradition.
“Serve only the Lord your God and fear him alone.” There is always 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? What does it tell us about faith and politics?
Let us see first that nothing in what Jesus says 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 tells the church in Rome to pay taxes. Taxpayers have a stake in the political order. It is understandable then, many people, Christians and non-Christians alike, are passionate about political causes, and work tirelessly to promote those they favor, or oppose those they deplore.
But let us also see that giving to Caesar must always remain distinct from giving to God.
Many people are so passionate about their causes, about their blueprints for making America a great country, that they believe their acceptance will somehow mean life from the dead. Or they are so invested in a political candidate that they believe that his election to office 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. The danger is no less than that of idolatry.
The truth is that no political project can pass as absolute and sacred. No temporal order, neither present nor future, can ever claim 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, and absolute allegiance. Consider the horrors of the great totalitarian dictatorships of the twentieth century if you need convincing.
We are to serve God alone, and him only are we to serve, even if that makes us unpopular or even the enemies of the state.
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. Our allegiance first of all is to Christ, not to a leader or a nation. 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 human beings. 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 that points to God’s kingdom, where justice and peace and unity and freedom will prevail in the end. Amen.