THE BLOG
10/07/2013 01:37 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Was Jesus Political? Undoubtedly

Let's get this out of the way right away: Jesus was political.

His preaching was tinged with political statements. His healings carried massive political implications for the ways we structure our world and understand our neighbor. His execution was of the kind reserved for acts of political disruption. That is, he died on a cross because the political authorities of his day saw him as a threat to the political structures and order of his day.

Jesus was political. His preaching was political. His ministry was political.

I feel compelled to say this because Bill O'Reilly's recent book has once again highlighted one of the most misunderstood facets of Jesus' ministry. In a recent interview with New Testament scholar Candida Moss, he denies that Jesus was a political figure. Instead, he claims, Jesus focused on the spiritual matters of life. (As if spiritual and religious matters didn't overlap then or still do today.)

To cinch his case, O'Reilly quotes Jesus: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's." This, O'Reilly concludes, demonstrates that Jesus separated the political and religious worlds for good, the two ought never meet. There is a realm where Caesar rules and another where God rules.

Of course, O'Reilly is not alone in these conclusions. But he and many other Christians are simply wrong about what Jesus is saying here. Many of us have misread this statement in a way that actually evinces an anemic theology.

Let's remember what events precipitate this incredibly well-known but misunderstood saying of Jesus. Three rather similar versions of the story appear in Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17, and Luke 20:20-26.

In each case, Jesus' opponents come to ask him a question they think will trap him. No matter how he answers, they imagine that Jesus' influence will come to an end. The rhetorical trap is set by asking a question that seemingly can only be answered in one of two ways. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?

If Jesus answers yes, then a population burdened by massively unfair taxation and profoundly distrustful of Rome's distant and arbitrary exercise of power will see Jesus as a traitor. He would have sold-out to Roman ideology. If Jesus answers yes, he loses the crowds that cause the authorities to fear his influence.

If Jesus answers no, then Rome will see in Jesus a rank insurrectionist. Telling people not to pay taxes to Caesar was akin to declaring war against Rome. If Jesus answers no, the state will see him as a threat and will destroy him.

Either way, Jesus loses. He's trapped. How can he escape?

In all three accounts, Jesus is aware that the question posed is not sincere. Thus, he famously responds, "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." In light of this response, his inquisitors are amazed.

Why? His insight is not separating the religious and political. His insight is not splitting the world into two distinct halves.

Instead, Jesus' response dazzles people because his answer is revolutionary. Most importantly, his response is amazing because it calls us to examine our own hearts.

Think about it this way. If you are a first-century Jew hearing Jesus' teaching, what exactly belongs to God? What exactly are "the things that are God's" if not everything? In essence, for those with a theology centered upon a God who creates and sustains the world, everything belongs to God, leaving nothing for Caesar.

If you are the emperor and you hear Jesus' response, however, you are not troubled. After all, what do you think belongs to you, the emperor, if not the whole world? Perhaps there might be some tiny crumbs left to give to your little provincial God, but everything else belongs to me, you would think to yourself.

In this way, Jesus appears to pose no threat to Rome but actually undercuts its audacious claims to power. In this way, Jesus throws the question back to his inquisitors. Who really rules the world? Whose world is this?

So, why don't we notice this subtlety? Perhaps because we don't actually take seriously the confession that the whole world belongs to God. Perhaps because we accept rather unthinkingly the claims to political power that governments in the ancient world and today claim. Perhaps because our theology is too easily co-opted by our political commitments.

So, yes, let's give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. And let how we respond to that saying reflect our deepest commitments. Do we give all to Caesar, leaving little for God? Or will we dare to confess that this world is God's and God's alone?

But let's not forget that when Jesus spoke, he was speaking with a political voice that eventually led to his unjust death and ultimate resurrection. That we miss Jesus' sharply political teachings says more about us than him.