I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ways that Christians respond to the politics of the age. When I was pastoring in an area in the north of Newcastle, I would be intentional about leading us in prayer for the local MP and councillors and encouraging people to view them as co-workers in our shared desire to see the good of the area.
I believe we have a clear biblical mandate to pray for our leaders, be good citizens, submit to the rule of law. But that can feel hard to hold in tension when there are world leaders who seem to be antithetical to so many biblical teachings. Praying for the local councillor who, like us, wanted the best for the area was easy; praying for a head of state who disregards people’s humanity can feel substantially harder.
Praying for the local councillor who, like us, wanted the best for the area was easy; praying for a head of state who disregards people’s humanity can feel substantially harder.
There’s been some troubling statements made as some evangelical leaders tie themselves in knots to justify their support for Caesar with misinterpreted biblical references. I offer the following thoughts not as rebuttal but in the honest hope that they’ll help some one, somewhere, navigate the present political climate with integrity.
When the government of a nation enacts policies that discriminate against those fleeing trouble? That challenges us all to make a choice. When people are left to suffer with hunger or ill health? That challenges us all to make a choice. When leaders express their hatred of others? That too challenges us all to make a choice. Do we side with Caesar or Christ?
Do we side with Caesar or Christ?
There’s a story in the synoptic gospels where a bunch of Pharisees and followers of Herod try to trap Jesus. He has just arrived in Jerusalem to a fevered response; people waved palm branches, evoking the memory of Judas Maccabeus’ overthrow of the Seleucids. He’s cleansed the temple and the question on many lips must have been whether this was the moment He would lead revolt against Rome.
So what better than to ask Him whether or not to pay taxes to Caesar? If He says that you should, then He undermines his own status, but if He says that you shouldn’t? They can have him arrested. Catch 22. Jesus, they think, cannot win.
They ask the question and He asks to see the coin they’d use to pay the tax. He holds it up and inspects it, showing it to them. “Hey, whose image is that,” he asks. And so they tell Him it’s Caesar’s, because the coin is stamped with Caesar’s face just like ours are stamped with the Queen’s. “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” He says,“and to God what is God’s.” (Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17, Luke 20:20-26)
Jesus takes what seems to be a routine question about taxation and uses it as an opportunity to teach us something about life. We shouldn’t be surprised at this, because as we see so often – Jesus uses what we do understand to teach us lessons about what we don’t.
Jesus takes what seems to be a routine question about taxation and uses it as an opportunity to teach us something about life.
“Give Caesar what is Caesar’s,” he says, “but give God what is God’s.”
So what belongs to Caesar? The coin with his face on it. Give it to him if he so asks for it. Pay your taxes, be a good law abiding citizen, that’s important – but that is important for everyone. It’s basic civic responsibility. The early church teachings of both Peter and Paul would show that they interpreted this as meaning obeying the law of the land, paying taxes, and praying for your leaders. (1 Peter 2:13-14, Romans 13:6-7)
Jesus is saying that just because we’re part of His kingdom doesn’t mean we get out of our basic duties as a good citizen, but actually it is so much more. He finishes his answer with the words: “Give God what is God’s.”
Give to God what is made in His image and likeness. And everyone in the temple would have known what that meant. This was the basic teaching that they all learned as children, they knew that they were created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27).
We read this passage like a gentle moral lesson on civic responsibility but actually this is Jesus telling everyone that their lives belong to God. We place emphasis on the first part of His response but, for everyone present, the second part would have resonated far louder. They were asking the wrong question; the question isn’t about taxes, or any of that stuff, the question is what do we give to God?
Caesar may come for our coin but God comes for our lives. All of us. Taxes? Taxes are a sideshow, get on and pay them like everyone else, Jesus says, He’s come for our mind, body and soul.
Caesar may come for our coin but God comes for our lives.
When a leader is openly racist or hateful towards people? We don’t follow suit. We don’t conform. Honouring the laws of the land does not require us to conform to hatred, injustice, racism, prejudice, things that Jesus clearly stands against.
When Jesus stands before Pilate, Pilate pronounces Him innocent (John 19:4). Jesus managed to live within the framework of the law, yet was so far from conforming to their ways that they killed Him anyway. Make no mistake, people were clear where Jesus stood and that was not on the side of the empire.
Similarly Peter and Paul advocated submitting to the law of the land, and yet were so radically different to the prevailing spirit of that land that one had his head cleft off and the other was crucified. Being a good citizen does not mean passively supporting evil or conforming to its ways.
Every time a world leader vents their hatred of their fellow man? Pray for them but don’t conform. Jesus managed to be both obedient to civil authority and resist the spirit of the age in a way that changed the world. They may get our money but they don’t get our identity, they do not get to change who we are.
In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul wrote:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
– Romans 12:1-2
Giving our bodies, made in God’s image, as a living sacrifice and what does that involve? Not being conformed to this world. Not going along like sheep with the winds of injustice but actually taking a stand. Daring to be different.
When leaders, or the law of the land, makes people suffer? It’s our place to advocate for them. To be a voice for the voiceless. To speak hope to the hopeless. To feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the immigrant. To speak up for justice and mercy.
At times like the present the message of this scripture is more literal than ever; we serve God not Caesar.