Every presidential election year is an emotional time for us as Americans. On both sides of the political fence, hopes and dreams for the next 4 years seem to be tied to whether the right person is elected to office. I have come to the conclusion that as a pastor the best use of my voice is to help people understand what sort of relationship Jesus wants us to have with our newly elected president. And interestingly enough, one of the few times Jesus was asked a directly political question, he was addressing a similar question. In Luke 20:20-26, some religious leaders asked Jesus, “Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Jesus gave a very short response, simply saying, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”. His response was very simple, and yet it was so profound that Luke tells us “marveling at his answer they became silent”. Based on Jesus’ response (and what we see in the Bible as a whole), there are 3 basic principles that we can apply to our context very easily come Wednesday morning once we know who our elected officials are.
- If you want to be a faithful follower of Jesus, you need to be a faithful and respectful citizen. Context is really important when we consider Jesus‘ statement “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”. In our case, we as Americans have the incredible freedom to vote people into office, and no one can remain in office as President for more than 8 years. So, at the most, we can only build up 8 years of angst towards an authority. But for Jesus‘ audience, their government was forced upon them in the form of the Roman Empire. And they had been a conquered people for over 500 years. And at no point in those 500 years did they ever have an emperor who embraced their religion. So to put where we are in the context of God’s people over the past 2000 years, we are profoundly fortunate. And yet Jesus nonetheless told his people that they should in effect show respect for these foreign, pagan rulers. Jesus’ disciples understood this principle very well. In 1 Peter 2, the apostle said, ““Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people”. Peter’s point here is that the degree to which we are respectful to those who are in authority over us has a direct impact upon our ability to have a positive impact in this culture. The apostle Paul gives the exact same command in Romans 13, and he even argues that when we fail to show respect for those leaders that have been placed over us, it is not a political issue, but a theological one. Yes. We can disagree with a person in authority, but when we fail to show them respect, we are ironically showing a lack of faith in God’s sovereignty. I wonder how many of the Facebook posts made by Christians model the level of respect that Jesus and the disciples commanded us to have?
- Never equate your political allegiances with your allegiance to the kingdom of God. The 2nd half of Jesus’ response was “and to God the things that are God’s”. What do we have that belongs to God? Ourselves! We may use coins that bear our earthly ruler’s image, but we ourselves are made in God’s image. We are the currency that makes God’s kingdom visible on earth. And the vast majority of who we are belongs to Him. In this statement, Jesus is implying that his kingdom is distinct from any earthly kingdom. The only time God has ever ordained a theocracy was with the nation of Israel, and even then they were to understand that the kingdom of God extended beyond the borders of Israel (see Hebrews 11:13-16). Historically, God has always desired for his people to learn how to live as exiles on earth, and we are wrong to ever think that one particular earthly kingdom can serve as our home. What this means is that we can certainly dialogue about which political party is more consistent with the kingdom of God in a particular election, but we should never equate one party with the kingdom of God. For one, there is no one church that perfectly embodies the kingdom of God, so we would be in theologically hot water to claim that a secular institution is. Secondly, the church is an international body consisting of believers who may not even believe in democracy, much less a particular form of democracy. We alienate ourselves from other brothers and sisters, not only in our own churches, but in other countries, whenever we make statements like “I don’t know how you can be a Christian and vote for _________”. Not to mention, that we should never attach the genuineness of someone’s faith to just one aspect of their Christian living. Otherwise, we would all be in big trouble. C. S. Lewis reminds us, “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.” When our blood pressure rises to high over political discussions, it is worth asking whether the problem is that we have rendered too much of ourselves to Caesar what rightfully belongs to God and his kingdom.
- While politics are a means of advancing the kingdom of God, they are not the primary means of advancing the kingdom. Where does Jesus say that in this passage? Well, it’s largely principle of silence. What we have seen throughout Jesus’ ministry, and this passage is no exception, is that people were intent on trying to convince Jesus to be a political leader. And he refused every time. For Jesus, to focus his efforts on advancing the kingdom through political process would have been a grave mistake. And the reason we are here today and we can call ourselves Christians is precisely because Jesus chose to advance his kingdom primarily through another means, meaning the cross. When we allow ourselves to believe that our vote in a given election has greater influence over the direction of this country than our willingness to simply walk the gospel road of humility and love, then we have lost the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus made it very clear that the path of the cross is the path we are primarily called to take, and he gave us a sacrament in communion to remind us of this point. The apostle Paul said that the cross is the power of God. The kingdom of God is advanced in more profound ways when God’s people “humble themselves and pray and seek my face” (2 Chronicles 7:14). In church history, you will find that Christianity experienced its seasons of greatest decline when they tried to make politics the primary means of advancing the kingdom. And Christianity had the greatest influence in society when we made Jesus and the gospel primary in our live and in our relationships. So if we think the key to Christianity having a more prominent role in the life of our society is getting our person elected to office locally or in Washington, we have already lost. The world needs the church to take a different path, and we would serve our cause well to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
We would love to hear what you think in the comments below! Comments will be moderated. This post is an excerpt from this past week’s sermon on The Politics of Jesus. For a full manuscript click here.