Render Unto Caesar: The Politics of Jesus

This sermon is the third of a 4-week series I am doing on faith and politics. My goal is not to tell people what to think or who to vote for, but rather to address some of the underlying spiritual issues at play in our national and global politics. I want to help Christians learn how to think about politics. You can listen to audio of the sermon HERE.

I have been shocked in my own work to prepare for this sermon series at how political the Bible is and, particularly, how political the life of Jesus is. Maybe I have just never looked at the text from this perspective before, but as I have been thinking and reading this month, I can see political realities and political implications on every page of the scriptures. Today, for this sermon, I want to explore how faith and politics mingle and move in the Bible and especially in the life of Jesus.

At the very beginning of the Bible, when God creates the heavens and the earth, we see two big political claims. First, people are made in the image of God. All of us. People are inherently important and valuable. They are not that way because of what they can offer to society. They are like that by their very existence. Second, people are meant to care for God’s creation—to name it, subdue it, and fill it.

This is why it is such a problem when Cain kills Abel. Cain asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Yes. You are your brother’s keeper and you are accountable for whatever you do to those that are made in the image of God.

There is an obvious problem. Something goes wrong in the world. What was good is now decidedly “not good.” Society gets more and more evil. God floods the earth and later confuses people’s language at the Tower of Babel so that there will be a limit to the evil that people can accomplish in society.bible-1623181_960_720

But God also begins a plan to do something about the problem of sin and evil. He calls a man named Abram to begin a people that will be a blessing to the nations. The vision has a sense of global and political significance. God says in Genesis 12: [2] And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. [3] I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3 ESV)

Generations later, the growing nation of Israel finds themselves as slaves in Egypt. This is the pivotal moment in the Old Testament. It is the story that defines the people of Israel. God is not a God of slavery. God is a God of freedom. All people are made in the image of God are not to be treated as commodities. The Exodus defines how Israel should treat people—especially the poor, the disenfranchised, and the sojourner in their land. Deuteronomy 24:12-22 says:

 [19] “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. [20] When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. [21] When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. [22] You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this.

So you are supposed to leave the sheaf of your field that you miss for those in need. You were supposed to leave the crops left in the ground for the poor. You were not supposed to harvest the edges of your fields for those living in your borders that could not support themselves.

Don’t go back over the trees again and get what you missed the first time. Leave the extra for those in need. It is the responsibility of all of God’s people to help those in need.

Israel did not have a political structure that looked anything like ours today. Israel was a theocracy. God ruled. He would raise up people like Moses or Joshua to the lead the people, or judges like Gideon or Deborah to guide the people, or prophets like Elijah and Elisha to speak God’s word to the people. These agents of God would lead his kingdom.

But as the people of Israel settled into the land and look at all their neighbors, they began to think that they should have a king. But the prophet Samuel, bringing a message from the Lord, warns them that having a king will mean a lot of sacrifices for them:

[11] He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. [12] And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. [13] He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. [14] He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. [15] He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants (1 Sam 8:10-15)

One of the problems with rulers and leaders is that they take what they want and what they need. They can be captivated by greed and power and a desire for more. People end up becoming a commodity for them to use for what they want to do in their reign. In fact, this happens to the kings of Israel. The kings are corrupted by other religions. The nation follows their lead away from the things of God and towards cruelty and abuse of others. In response, the God raises up prophets to speak out against the king and the in justices of the people.

When we turn to the New Testament, the focus moves from the story of a nation to the story of a person. Jesus steps on the scene and lives a very public and political life.

Before Jesus is even born, his mother sings a song magnifying the Lord for what is happening in her womb. Listen to how political her song is:
[46] And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord,
[47]   and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
[52] he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate;
[53] he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
[54] He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
[55] as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”  (Luke 1:46-55 ESV)

Mary rejoices because her son will bring the mighty from their thrones and exalt those in humble estate. He will upset rich and poor. Mary sees something politically significant happening inside of her body.

Jesus is born in the midst of a genocide, as King Herod kills all the male children in the region of Bethlehem under two years old. Jesus, in his very existence, is interpreted as a threat to the ruler of Israel. Jesus is not killed, though. Joseph is told in a dream to take his family to Egypt. Think about that—Jesus was a Middle Eastern refugee who immigrated in his childhood to another country.

The entire life of Jesus on earth is a critique against the political structures of his day. Think about the people Jesus spent time with and cared for. He is constantly helping the poor and the disabled. He touches untouchable lepers. He pulls children onto his knee. He crosses racial and ethnic lines in his dealings with Samaritans. Jesus has a relationship with women in his ministry that would be shocking in his day. And he did not care what the established laws were about work on the Sabbath. He just wanted to help and heal others.

Jesus had one disciple named Simon the Zealot (Lk 6:16) who was probably an extremely nationalistic Jew who wanted to rebel against the Roman oppression of Israel. Jesus also had Matthew the tax collector who had sold out to the occupying Roman Empire by collecting the Roman taxes from his own countrymen.

Think about the teachings of Jesus. In his teachings, people are valuable. Sheep are worth finding. Coins are worth tearing the house apart for. Samaritans can be examples of love. The last will be first. Blessed are the poor, the meek, the mourning, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. Jesus said, “Whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.” No wonder the elites and those with power had to get rid of him. His way of living in and seeing the world upset their power structures.

Jesus uses kingdom language as he talks about the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of God. That may not strike us as political language, since we don’t live under a king or in what we would typically call a kingdom. But Jesus did live in a kingdom. Perhaps, if Jesus was born today, he would talk about the republic of heaven, the democracy of God, the nation of heaven, or the presidency or administration of God. When Jesus says kingdom, he is using the political term of his day.

When Jesus comes into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday, he does so with nationalistic symbols of palm branches waiving. But he doesn’t come riding a horse like the king would have earlier that day. Jesus comes humbly on a donkey. His kingdom is different.

The language of kingdom becomes important at his trial in John 18:

So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” (John 18:33-38a ESV)

Understand the political power of this moment. Jesus has already been tried by the Jewish authorities, but they want him killed, and they have no power to give the death penalty. So Pilate has to do a trial, and his question, because it is the crux of the case against him, is “Are you the King of the Jews?” But Jesus answers that his kingdom is not of this world, obviously, since his disciples are not fighting. Pilate is not convinced of guilt, but, under the pressure of the crowd, he gives Jesus the death penalty. He is crucified, a sentence reserved for political traitors. This was a brutal and public killing that was meant to deter any political rebellion. It would happen at a prominent place outside the city, so that everyone would be reminded what happened when you rebelled against the Romans.duccio_di_buoninsegna_027a

Jesus dies with a sign above his head proclaiming him to be a king. This moment on the cross is the Exodus moment of the New Testament. It is a sign of freedom and a call to treat others differently because you too were once a slave to sin and death. The resurrection is the ultimate sign of this freedom and new life.

The rallying cry of the followers of Jesus became, “Jesus is Lord.” This is a strong political statement in and of itself, because at the end of public assemblies in the Roman Empire the people would all say, “Caesar is lord.” In fact, a gathering to hear the reports or commands of the Caesar was called an ecclesia. This is the same word that the Christians used for their gatherings. The church is named after gatherings to proclaim that Caesar was lord. The church is named after a political gathering.

Jesus said that his kingdom was not of this world, but the understanding of the end of the Bible is that it would not always be that way. Revelation 11:15 proclaims, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.” People from every nation and tongue will someday bow and confess Jesus as Lord. Some of the disciples thought it would happen right away. They asked him before his ascension, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) They were wrong that it would happen immediately, but it will happen someday.

Until then, we sit here as the followers of Jesus and the people of this Book. It is our job to look at the politics of our day and critique them. We need to do so in a way that is #1 informed by the Bible and #2 inspired by the example of Jesus. What do I mean by that?

To be informed by the Bible means that these stories and ideas shape our imagination about the world and what the world should be. It means having our priorities be set by its priorities. To be informed by the Bible means realizing that the Bible, from start to finish, pushes us into public life with our faith in hand. Our faith is not a private thing. It is such a central part of who we are that it must touch everything we think about it. For every position we take, we should be able to make a case for it out of the Bible.

To be inspired by the example of Jesus means that we approach our public life and political involvement in the mold of Jesus. John Howard Yoder calls Jesus “a social critic and an agitator, a drop-out from the social climb, and the spokesman of a counterculture.” (Politics of Jesus pg. 1) Jesus did not hold political office or become a priest. He was not a centurion. He did not do any picketing or political lobbying. The authority of Jesus did not come from this earth.

What Jesus did do is create an alternative community that looked very different from the world. The citizens of the kingdom cared about people and were based on service. These people lived lives of joy and gratitude because they understood what Jesus had done to save them. They were once slaves but they are now free. They understood where their identifying citizenship truly came from. And it was a community based on humility. Humility—that is not a word that we can use about much that is going on in politics today.

I think that many of us are like those disciples at the ascension, wondering if Jesus is now going to break in and have an earthly kingdom. We want Jesus to break in and make things right in the world. How bad is he going to let things get? But, the thing about the kingdom of Jesus is that it doesn’t come by power. The reign of Jesus moves in this world as he reigns in our hearts, and as we with our lives proclaim that “Jesus is Lord.” We have to learn to accept his kingship in our own lives, because that is how the reign of Christ will change the world—moving from heart to heart to heart. The revolution that began on the cross is perpetuated in the love and service of those that let Christ be Lord in their lives.

The early church followed Christ’s example and was guided by the Bible. They built the first hospitals, the first orphanages, and developed systems of adoption. They served others and worked for the betterment of the kingdoms that they lived in. They built strong churches to care for needs and to develop better citizens for the world. Later, a number of Christians would be influential in forming this nation around the biblical themes of freedom and liberty.

The best thing that we can do for our nation and our world is to be faithful Christians and be faithful churches. What we desperately need right now is for Christians to put Jesus first and to be guided by his Word. Then, heart to heart to heart, the reign of God can change the world.

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