Some Christians are making political commitments that Jesus would hesitate to call, well, Christian. Let me explain by way of a political run-in that Jesus had with a group called the Herodians and some Pharisees.
We don’t know much about the Herodians.
Their name suggests that they were like other groups whose names derive from a person they follow in some way. Think of Marxists or Freudians or even Christians.
So, it’s reasonable to think that the Herodians may have sought to restore the Herodian family to the throne of Israel. They were a politically motivated group. They had hitched their political, social and economic wagon to Herod and his descendants. If Herod’s line came to power, their political muscle, social status and personal wealth would increase.
In Matthew’s Gospel, we read that Herod the Great was not actually about making Israel great again. At least, not great in any spiritual or moral sense. He was mostly about making Herod great.
Hearing from the three Wise Men that a legitimate Davidic king had been born, Herod schemed to have the child assassinated. To retain his own power, prestige, and possessions, Herod sent his troops to Bethlehem. Their orders were clear and ghastly. Kill every child under 2.
You might wonder how anyone could follow such a creature. Jesus might have wondered precisely the same thing. But he would have been especially puzzled to see a group of Pharisees cozying up to a bunch of clowns wearing Herod hats and Herod t-shirts.
After all, the Pharisees rigorously pursued the moral life. They were steeped in Scripture and patterned their lives on the law. They genuinely sought Israel’s spiritual and moral renewal.
But maybe a few Pharisees had lost their perspective. Perhaps Jesus’ teaching seemed to them not only misguided but genuinely harmful to the people. It could be that fear or jealousy led them to see Jesus as a rival.
In any event, Jesus saw that this group of Pharisees had teamed up with the Herodians. Their goal was to discredit him. Any question they had for Jesus was a political device intended to put him in a bind with either the Roman occupiers or his own followers.
Here’s the question they asked:
Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?
Imperial taxes were something like paying protection money to the mob. The Romans extorted money from the Israelites to finance their own military occupation and to line their own pockets. It’s no wonder that Jesus’ followers—like most Israelites—hated paying such taxes.
At the same time, the Romans punished any hint of resistance with brutal violence. Refusing to pay taxes could lead to imprisonment, torture, and death.
Recognizing the trap laid for him, Jesus responds in a typically Jesus-y way. Instead of reacting to a threat, he uses the situation as a teachable moment about being an instrument of grace in a messy, frequently bruising world.
Jesus asked them for one of the coins that they use to pay taxes. He points to Caesar’s likeness on the coin. Then, he says, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Some have read this as a sort of general rule. There are spiritual things and practical, political things. Keep the two distinct in your mind and in your life.
Others say that everything belongs to God and nothing belongs to Caesar.
You’ll find variations on and departures from these interpretations. What they have in common is that they assume that Jesus is pointing toward a set of instructions to follow.
Maybe that’s true. But then again, remember that Jesus loved teaching in parables. His reply to the Pharisees and the Herodians is not precisely a parable. But I believe that he intends for his response to function like a parable.
Parables do not offer a set of guidelines for clean and successful living. Instead, parables call us to honest, often painful self-reflection. Jesus discerned that the Pharisees and the Herodians were spiritually decompensating.
When he says, “Give to the emperor...” Jesus is urging his antagonists to ask themselves a probing question. “What am I really doing? What kind of world am I trying to make? Who am I serving?”
Each Pharisee and each Herodian believed that they were created to be the image of God. Jesus shows them the image of the emperor, an image they are carrying in their own pockets.
In essence, Jesus asks them, “Does your way of being in this world resemble the gracious, nurturing power of God or the coercive, destructive power of the emperor?”
It’s a question that Jesus is still asking us. Today.
Jesus was not partisan. But he was political in the broad sense. He understood that human well-being happens in community. Our political, economic, and social structures will support or assault the dignity of the individuals within them.
When we vote for a candidate, support a political figure’s actions, and advocate for various policies, a Jesus-y question should echo in our hearts. Are we living into the image of God or conforming to the ways of the emperor?
The way of the emperor is to strive to make a better place for ourselves in the world, even if it comes at the expense of others. Following Jesus means to commit ourselves to making the world a better place. For everybody.
Check out my blog “Finding God in Messy Places.”