In a day of heightened political division, some will try to co-op Jesus for their political point of view. This is a temptation to the left as well as to the right.
On the right, many Republicans are quick to claim that Jesus is on the side of traditionalism. On the left, they are quick to point out that Jesus is on the side of progress. He was a free healthcare distributing machine. Each will quote Jesus, and likely use the passage found in Mark 12:13-17, or its parallels in Matthew 22:15-22 and Luke 20:20-26.
Two groups are featured in this story – the Pharisees and the Herodians. Their cooperation is a demonstration of the ancient proverb, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The Pharisees and the Herodians were political rivals brought together because they both saw Jesus as a threat.
They came up with a question about an unpopular tax. No matter how Jesus answered, it would land him in trouble. They even came together to spring the trap.
Here’s the trap. Is it lawful to pay a very unpopular poll tax to Caesar? If he said “no,” he is a revolutionary and in trouble with Rome. If he said “yes,” he is not really on the side of the people and his popularity would be weakened.
They had him!
You will note they asked the question twice; they wanted to corner him. You will also note they framed it as a “yes or no” question. It was simple; he was either for the tax or he was against it.
Jesus would not fall for this trap of political simplicity. Some things are very simple. You either believe or you don’t. You are either a follower of Christ or you are not. When asked about our relationship to God, Jesus is simple and very clear. But when asked about politics, he is nuanced and sophisticated.
His response is balanced. “What is on the coin,” he asked. The Roman Denarius had the image of Caesar on it and the inscription, “Tiberius, king, son of a god, high priest.” So, Jesus said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”
He rejects political simplicity. This question deserved more than a “yes or no” answer. He also rejects political primacy. His easy dismissal of the urgency of their question demonstrates that this is not a significant matter. “Give Caesar his due,” he is saying, but then he adds, “Give to God what is God’s.”
Or, in other words, don’t give to Caesar what is God’s. Politics is not primary. Your relationship with God is. Jesus would not make politics the main filter for reality. That is the temptation in times like this, that we allow our political filter to be our primary filter.
Jesus rejects political simplicity and political primacy. As followers of Christ, so should we. The issues we are dealing with as a society are not simple, and we must give people room for nuance. When we don’t, it means we are using our political filter to try and judge them.
Instead, Jesus indicated we should give to God the things that are God’s. How, in a politically charged climate, do we do this? Let me make two suggestions.
First, focus on being a student of the other side, not a critic. If you have a friend, a co-worker, or family member who totally disagrees with you on current issues, try to understand why instead of just criticizing them. Be a student of them, learn why they think that way. Stand in their shoes for a moment. In other words, care more for them than you do for your position.
Second, never, ever, give away your influence. Do not give away to current issues what is God’s – your witness. Your witness is far more important than who controls Congress, who is in the White House, or who is on the Supreme Court.