The constitution of the United States guarantees freedom of religion with what has been described as the separation of church and state. Now, what that means has created controversy over the years.
- Should the Ten Commandments be posted in court rooms?
- Should public prayer be banned from schools?
- Can a business, on religious grounds, refuse its services to people who live a lifestyle the owner disagrees with?
- As our country has evolved so have the issues which have become more complex.
Now politics – especially during an election year - is an arena in which the separation of church and state has become very murky. Religious conservatives as well as religious liberals have found it difficult to draw a line between what is religious principle and political cause.
So, the gap between right and the left, red and blue, grows wider, with moral stances. Just read social media posts and both sides ask the question “How can you be a Christian if you vote for that person?”
Which forces the question, who is right and who is wrong? And if you choose to answer that question, no matter where you land, you are going to anger half the people in that argument.
Now, none of this is new. The Roman Empire had a surprisingly tolerant “freedom of religion” policy because it was helpful for reducing insurrections among the nations it conquered. If you let the people worship the God of their choice, it’s easier to control them.
However, Caesar was considered divine, which presented a problem for both Jews and Christians.
- God’s institution of Israel as a theocracy meant that “church” was to rule “state.”
- Under Roman rule “state” often dictated to “church.”
So, what happened is that two very different political schools of thought emerged among religious leaders. And their differences had to do with their relationship between Israel and Rome.
- One side used religious passion in their attempt to overthrow Roman rule.
- The other side found common ground with the Roman government.
- Which caused a deeply divided nation.
- At the center of disagreement were the taxes that Rome levied on conquered people.
When posed with a question designed to paint Jesus into one political corner against the other, He responds in a way that demonstrates how all those who follow Him ought to think of political responsibility and government.
Let’s listen to our text: Mark 12:13-17
The last straw for the Pharisees and religious officials was a parable Jesus told which clearly pointed a finger at them. Jesus told them in clear terms that they were totally off the mark with God and that all those people they considered spiritual rejects were about to inherit the kingdom of God before them.
So, as you can imagine . . . after years of building themselves up to the top of the spiritual totem pole being told that those underneath them or perhaps not even on that pole are going to inherit the kingdom of God before they do . . . well, that didn’t go over so well.
But because of Jesus' popularity with the crowds, the Pharisees and their allies decided that it would be best to set a trap for him. They would engage Jesus with a question that would weaken his credibility. And the political arena was the easiest place to do this.
Now, one of the interesting elements to this story is that those who came to entrap Jesus were strange allies. Normally the Pharisees and the Herodians would have absolutely nothing to do with each other because they were camped out on complete opposite sides of the political spectrum.
- The Pharisees were separatists who did not like big government as they believed the Roman occupation of Israel was immoral and an affront to God himself, so they did not like paying the Roman tax, but did so reluctantly.
- The Herodians cooperated with the family of Herod, the Hebrew leader who was a Roman puppet, and they had no problem with paying the tax. If you pay, they will take care of us: social security and universal health care.
But what the Pharisees and Herodians do have in common is a desire to see Jesus eliminated and so it’s not surprising that the text tells us that what they really wanted was not tax advice but rather to “trap Jesus in his words” . . . You see, forcing Jesus to answer a question about paying taxes would ensure that he would incur someone's wrath.
- If he says “yes” to the tax, he will anger those who oppose and struggle against submission to Rome and it would sound like a renunciation of Jewish Nationalism.
- If he says "no" to the tax, he will be subject to a charge of treason and would jeopardize the continuation of his ministry.
- This seemed to be the perfect plan to begin the process of eliminating Jesus.
But the trick question elicited a trick answer from Jesus. He asked them for the coin that was used to pay the state tax, and then asked whose image it bore. Most likely the coin in question bore the image of the emperor Tiberius who ruled Rome during those years.
- One side of the coin would have had an inscription defining Tiberius as a "son of the divine August"
- While the other side would have honored him as the "Pontifex Maximus" or "chief priest" of Roman polytheism.
- The two sides of the coin in question celebrated absolute religious and civil authority for Tiberius.
To a nationalistic Jew who confessed a radical monotheism, “I am the Lord your God, and you shall have no other gods before me” such a graven image was religiously offensive and politically humiliating.
When Jesus' questioners responded that the coin bore the image of Caesar, he replied with a cryptic answer: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."
Rather than making an inflammatory political statement by denouncing Rome, Jesus sought to evade their trap with a dismissive shrug—"If the coin belongs to Caesar, let him have it. It's only money."
Jesus refused to take their bait and I would imagine he taunted his questioners by pocketing the coin.
But what about the second half of his advice? . . . What do we owe to God?
Perhaps we might find some clues to Jesus’ cryptic message from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah 45:4-12
In this text, God is addressing Cyrus, King of Persia, and a gentile, as one who is called by the God of Israel. In other words, it is not solely the people of Israel who are God's, but everyone to whom God gives life and breath.
It is a claim even more sweeping than some people would have wanted to make; especially if you are one of God’s chosen people.
But as far as it relates to the question Jesus was asked -- whether Jews should pay taxes to Caesar -- it boils down to essentially the same thing: What belongs to God is everything.
At issue is not merely our economic relationship to the government but my relationship with God and the coin Jesus asks for would seem to be the focal point of this discussion.
On that ancient coin was an image of Caesar, and merely money is owed to him, whereas every human being - being made in the likeness of God -bears the image of God . . . implying that I “render to God” wholly and without condition my entire self.
The religious leaders are stunned by his answer and completely unaware that they demonstrate the point. They are so focused on trapping Jesus with the political ideology of the day, that they are opposing the message and the messenger of God who is ushering in a new kingdom.
One of the questions people ask over and over is, "How could religious leaders and their followers get so far off the mark?"
The answer to the question is in Jesus’ response to; "Render unto God the things that are God's."
You and I have the image and likeness of God imprinted on our spirit. We belong to God. But God has given us the choice to do the rendering. We may choose to give ourselves to anything we want.
But at the end of the day -- when all is said and done, there is a basic principle here. If we wish to avoid the kind of spiritual disaster that befell the adversaries of Jesus in our text, there is something we must stay in touch with.
We need to consistently practice inward searching of our lives and our priorities to regularly renew and refresh the "rendering" of my spirit. And the only way that can happen is when we are willing to put aside our attempt for religious gain and fall at the feet of the cross.
So, when it comes to politics and your relationship to government, you owe God your allegiance.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t love your country and be loyal to it or even die for it if you are called to do so—but your ultimate allegiance must not be America, it must be to God and His kingdom that was ushered in by His son, Jesus.
Certainly, there are some political positions that are good and some immoral. I am not saying we can’t make political judgments about what we think would be best for our country. We can and we should.
You may have strong convictions that one party or politician will be better at accomplishing these things than others. But what you cannot do is put your hope in them. If you do that, you are giving to Caesar what belongs to God.
If you want America to be good—your hope must be in the Gospel.
Which boldly declares that we are broken, and it is only God’s amazing grace through Jesus, and the power of the Holy Spirit that makes us whole again.
Our hope for seeing the soul of America changed is not who is in the White House or in Congress or the Supreme Court but who is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
What that means practically is that the Gospel is bigger than our political views.
As Christians we should be able to live together in the same church with political differences. God’s Table does not have a political requirement.
And if our hope is truly in Jesus, we will never say, how can you call yourself a Christian and vote that way?
We may debate our political differences, but salvation is through faith in Christ alone, and that is what unites us.