Jesus Challenges the Political System

June 27th, 2011
Tiberius AR Denarius, 16-34 AD. © Icarus Kuwait | Flickr | Used under Creative Commons license.

A Sermon on Mark 12:13-17, part of a Lenten series entitled "Why They Killed Jesus."

“Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. And give unto God what is God’s.” There is perhaps no saying of Jesus, maybe even no verse in the Bible that is so ambiguous and at the same time so powerful that it comes loaded with unbelievably different interpretations. It is perhaps simultaneously the best known and the least understood saying of Jesus. Now, I could stand here today and tell you that I’m going to explain once and for all what Jesus really means, but the truth is that there are many ways of going at this and none of them has been so clearly correct, none so obviously authoritative as to truly settle the debate.

“Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. And give unto God what is God’s.” It’s not clear at all what Jesus is saying. The good thing, though, is that this saying occurs in a story that happens in a specific time and place. So looking at the context in which the story occurs gives us some insight.

In Mark’s version of Jesus’ story, we’re in Jerusalem some time in the last week of Jesus’ life. He’s ridden into town on a donkey, and he’s been making quite a scene ever since. Jerusalem is already on edge because thousands of pilgrims have come to observe the Passover, and the Romans have sent extra soldiers from Caesarea to keep order. This is the perfect time for a riot to break out, and the religious and political leaders think that this Jesus fellow just might be dangerous.

So here we see two unlikely groups joining forces to try to trap Jesus: the Pharisees and the Herodians. The Pharisees are the scholars and teachers of the scriptures; they’re the learned holy men who have some pretty specific ideas about what is right and what is wrong. So it’s strange that the Pharisees are joining forces with the Herodians—the people who support King Herod. Herod is the puppet king that the Romans installed so the Judeans would think that they ran their own show. These two groups don’t like each other at all. But Jesus is clearly a threat to both of them and clearly they’re both more interested in preserving the status quo that lets them be powerful. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” as the saying goes, so this unlikely duo goes to try to trap Jesus any way they can.

“Teacher,” they say, “we know you are a man of integrity.” They don’t actually believe this, by the way, they’re just trying to flatter him so he won’t notice what they’re trying to do. “Jesus, you’re such a good, smart, all around wonderful guy (by the way, did we mention how handsome you are?), so we’d like your help with a question. We’re wondering, Jesus, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
They’re trying to trap him. If he says yes, he’s saying to go along with these awful Romans, so he’s a sellout who’s as bad as Herod. Don’t listen to this man! He doesn’t believe the Bible! On the other hand, if he says no, don’t pay taxes to Caesar, well then he’s a rebel! He’s advocating chaos and disorder. Don’t listen to this man or the Romans will crucify you right next to him!

Quite a dilemma Jesus is in here. But Jesus is a smart guy, he knows that there’s no good answer, so he turns the question around on them. “Give me a coin,” he says. There are two different types of currency in circulation at this time. One type is the Roman currency, and it’s a lot like our coins today. It has a picture of the Roman Emperor on it, kind of like our quarter has George Washington. This currency is good all over the Empire, it works really well, and everyone’s happy. Everyone, that is, except the Jews. The Jews have this law where their God tells them not to make any graven images, no physical depictions of any divine figure because it reduces God to an object. You may recall that this is one of the Ten Commandments—it’s a biggie. Since the Roman Caesar is viewed as a divine figure, an image of him on a coin is therefore a graven image. Hence, Jews can’t even handle these coins without breaking the Law and being ritually unclean. They have a different currency they use that doesn’t have anyone’s image on it, so it’s clean, it’s kosher.

Two types of currency: one with Caesar’s graven image, one without. Which coin do they hand to Jesus? Whose image is on this coin? Caesar’s. Jesus has turned the question around on them and asked them to perform an action that shows where their loyalty really lies. For a Jewish person, this was an area where they couldn’t be both a good citizen of the empire and a faithful follower of God. This was where they had to choose and these guys chose to throw their lot in with Caesar. They made the politically expedient choice and chose Caesar over God.

Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give unto God what is God’s. That very phrase poses an interesting question. If we are to give to these two entities what belongs to them, we have to know what belongs to each. So let’s consider, who created all the land on earth, even all the land that comprises the Roman Empire? God did. Who created all the elements in the earth, including the metals that are used to make these coins? God did. Who gave human beings the ability to learn and fashion tools to mine these metals out of the ground, who gave them the ability to experiment and create processes to melt these metals down and mint them into coins? God did. Who created each and every human being and gives them each breath they take, who created every citizen of this empire? God did. Who is ruler of the universe long before and long after every government comes and goes from the face of the earth? God is. The psalmist tells us that “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” So what belongs to God? Everything. What belongs to Caesar? Nothing. So give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and give unto God what is God’s.

Now, of course, we don’t live under Roman occupation, so the choice facing us isn’t exactly the same as that faced by Jesus and his peers. We use coins with someone’s face on them, but no one claims that George Washington or Abraham Lincoln are somehow divine, so we don’t have to worry about graven images on our money. But just like the people of Jesus’ time, we face a host of difficult choices every day. We come in contact with all kinds of things that demand our allegiance, that tell us that they have to be our first priority. In our own time the great theologian Paul Tillich talked about faith as “the state of being ultimately concerned with something.” Our ultimate concern is the thing that owns our first loyalty, it’s the thing around which we orient all our decisions. Our ultimate concern is the thing we’d die for. According to Tillich, everyone has faith because everyone has an object of ultimate concern, it’s just a question of what it is. Tillich’s question is more or less a version of the question Jesus poses: to what or whom are we loyal? What do we really put our faith in?

This isn’t an easy question to answer, because there are plenty of things we can be loyal to that don’t conflict with each other most of the time. Our jobs, our hobbies, our families: most of the time these things don’t conflict with our faith. The question is not whether we can participate in different things. The question is: where does our ultimate loyalty lie? What is the absolute most important thing? And when we take a long, hard look at ourselves, will we discover that we have given the absolute best of what we are to something that is much less than God?

Again, this is a hard question to answer, because we rarely have just one motivation for anything we do. And we don’t always think through every action and ask why we’re doing it. Sometimes we just react to a situation. Because of that, it’s easy to find ourselves in a place where we’re giving our first loyalty, where we’re giving our absolute best to something that isn’t bad by itself, but something that ultimately doesn’t last, something that is much less than God. We won’t be able to answer those questions unless we engage in some serious self examination, unless we’re willing to look inside and say, “what’s my real motivation here?”

I’ll give you an example of what I’m talking about. Last week we had gospel singer Harlan Burton here to sing for us. He sang some really beautiful songs about Jesus and about Heaven, and we politely applauded. We’re not an especially emotional or charismatic congregation, and polite applause is about all the emotion we’re going to openly display in church most of the time. But then Harlan ended his set of songs by singing Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American.” That’s a really nice song, but it’s not a hymn. It’s a song about our country, and God is just kind of mentioned as an afterthought. When he started singing that song we all stood up. We could really sense the spirit of pride, dare I say of reverence in the room. And at the end we applauded and cheered harder and louder than we’ve ever done, at least since I’ve been here.

I’ve been reflecting on this for the past week, and I think we all need to ask ourselves some questions that might be uncomfortable. When we gather here to worship God, we sing and pray and proclaim together that God is the one who holds our highest loyalty, that God is the object of our ultimate concern, and as such we pledge to give God our absolute best. But did we reserve our loudest cheers and our deepest demonstrations of pride and loyalty for our country, and not for God? Have we gotten caught up and unintentionally given our best to something that, while great, is much, much less than God? Have we unintentionally given to Caesar something that really belongs to God?

I realize this is an uncomfortable question, and I don’t ask it lightly. I am a proud citizen of the United States and I honor the sacrifice many of you have made by serving in our armed forces. I pose this question to us because it is one that Jesus challenged people with in his day, and it rings true in our time. We worship a God who became one of us and was killed for, among other things, suggesting that we owe our first loyalty, that we owe the best of what we are to something that is greater and more eternal than any government or nation ever could be. We owe it to ourselves and we owe it to our creator to ask these hard questions so that we know where our true loyalties ultimately lie.

As we come to the table today, let us do so seeking to renew and strengthen our commitment to seek first God’s Kingdom and God’s righteousness. Let us come together and partake of Christ’s body and his blood, knowing that we follow in the footsteps of the one who was killed because he was a threat to the powers of this world, the one who rose again because our God is greater than any of those powers ever could be. God gave his very best to us, let’s give our very best to God.

In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen.


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