by Pastor Mike Middaugh
Yesterday at Calvary I shared a few thoughts on how Christians might approach their vote this election cycle. Here is a summary.
In Luke 20:19-26 the scribes and chief priests seek to trap Jesus in something he said so they asked him “Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” Paying tribute was special tax required of every person subject to Caesar and Rome. As such, it was a contentious and despised tax within Israel. In years past there had been uprisings and rebellions against paying the tax.
If Jesus said “yes, pay the tax” the religious leaders knew he would lose credibility with his followers. Many were hoping Jesus would bring a revolution that would cause true change within the political system. But if Jesus said “no, do not pay the tax” he would be at risk of arrest for speaking against the Roman government and causing rebellion.
It was a trap. So instead, Jesus responded by saying “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s”. With these words Jesus deftly and brilliantly walks the line. He stayed true to his ultimate plan – bringing a life-changing revolution for his followers, but he also steers clear of stirring the political pot too soon, and being arrested or imprisoned.
With Jesus response I believe we are taught several principals about our role in interacting with the civil realm.
1 Jesus does not give the right to political complacency.
Jesus could have avoided the question, or said the topic didn’t involve him. He could have shrugged it it off, or pivoted to something safer. Instead, Jesus responds – with a real answer.
Jesus asks a very pointed question “Whose likeness and description does it have?”
“Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”
It is Caesars coin, he created it. With all the imperfections and flaws of the politics of his day Jesus acknowledges a need to still obey, to give to Caesar what is demanded, it belongs to him anyhow. In one response Jesus allows room for the basic authority of governments in this world, and at the same time points out their limitations.
But his words are anything but a call to complacency. When God’s people stay involved with the civil realm and stay engaged in the real workings of the world there is also the opportunity to bring positive change. During Jesus day, the relationship between Rome and Israel was contentious. After Jesus’ ascension it grew even worse. But Jesus still encouraged his people to live within the realm of this world, to work to make it better, to work for harmony, peace, and justice, all things impossible with complacency.
Some may choose to refrain from voting in this election. For these few it may be a well thought out, and prayerfully entered into, act of rebellion, a way of demanding things get better. Many others may way heavily their choice and ultimately vote for a candidate they believe to be imperfect, but still the better option. And other people of faith will feel it is an easy choice, and be at peace with the decision that they make. Each of these paths may be places we walk through in our lifetime of voting and politics, but let us enter in with prayer, deliberation, consideration and care. We cannot change a system if we do not stay involved.
2 Jesus rises above political simplicity.
Jesus answer is not really a “yes” or a “no,” but somewhere in between. He says “OK, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. This coin is his anyway.” But then Jesus adds “and give to God what is God’s” which is actually a not-so-subtle act of rebellion. On the front of a denarius would have been Caesar’s image, with an inscription stating “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, Augustus.” With this inscription Tiberius Caesar was claiming full authority over the people, authority in the civil realm but also in the divine. Caesar claimed to be a God, and as such, also high priest over the people. This was one reason why paying the tax was so offensive to the Jews. But Jesus is willing to say “give the coin to Caesar, but to the true God, give your allegiance.”
Jesus revolution was not one that began in the pocketbooks of his people, it started with their hearts. The God of the Bible has always been primarily concerned with his people’s faithfulness to himself, that they would see that nothing in this world can offer salvation, not a Caesar, not a President, not a party. Only God grants salvation, through the revolutionary sacrifice of his Son. This is why we worship him, and him alone.
In this way, Jesus avoided political simplicity. He granted the paying of the tax, but not allegiance to the very words written on the coin. Today there are many who might wish to simplify the issues saying that a Christian can only vote in this way, or in that. It is true, for the people of God some issues should rise to the top, but even in those there is room for debate. We vote our conscience. We vote as people of prayer. We vote knowing that in prayer we may be led to a different conclusion than others. This is the way it is in a complex, imperfect, limited government of this world.
3 Jesus does not accept political primacy.
Jesus had to ask for someone else to find a coin to show and make his point. He did not have one. In fact in his life, he is never known to hold or have any wealth whatsoever. More than just a show or an act, this was for his people to be one more sign of who he really was. This is the God-man. Powerful enough he had no need for earthly money, yet humble and sacrificial enough he stooped down to live within the human system to display his abundant love.
It is clear all along in Jesus’ ministry that he did not come as one more emperor, elected official, or Caesar, he came as the most-high God. The only one capable of ruling justly and with true authority. He came to change the world, starting with our hearts, claimed by him in the new life of the Resurrection. He also came to change the world, but not by force, but by loving, persistent subversion. He raised up a people, a church, who would work to bring true healing, true help, true comfort, peace, justice, and hope that might lift up the broken-hearted and the broken in body as well.
No party will save us. No elected official will bring the change we truly long for.
And yet, we are called to stay involved, to raise the bar of civil discourse. To be patient in conversation, understanding of different views, and loving with all our words. We are invited to fight for justice and mercy for those in need. This starts in our own lives, with our hands and with our own work, and flows into all our actions, including the way we vote.
And finally, we should work for a higher standard. Our standard is God’s standard, which is perfection. We will not reach it in this life, but thankfully we are forgiven. And yet we are called work towards that goal, to reflect Jesus in our lives. During this year’s presidential election some very damaging and harmful things have been said. Many have been hurt by these words, and left to wonder why these words and actions are allowable today, especially from those who might seek the highest public office. What can we do to work for a better system, and to demand more of our leaders? How might different, greater values, such as repentance and humility become characteristics we require for those running for public office? How might we be part of this change?
Join me in praying: for wisdom as we vote, for discernment as we respond and interact with others, and for healing as our nation moves forward from a difficult and trying election cycle, that we might find more reasons to come together than to remain divided.