It’s Not About Politics

Matthew 22:15-22

A couple weeks ago Bill Jackson sent around an article from the New York Times written by Raza Aslan, a New Testament scholar and author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and who happens to be Muslim. In his op-ed he urged Americans not to paint all of Islam with the same broad brush of ISIS terrorism. One of his points was that for most people of faith their religious identity is as much, if not more, a matter of cultural identity then it is about specific doctrines or theology. In my sermon today, amongst other matters, I want to address the issue of the intermingling of faith and culture. To introduce us to the subject we have this famous encounter of Jesus with the issue of paying taxes. Reading from Matthew 22:15-22.

15Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius.20Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

One of the cardinal rules of preaching is “stay away from politics.” You’ll only get yourself in trouble. This axiom is probably based on two presuppositions: 1) the American notion of separation of church and state; 2) a sense that the sanctuary is too sacred a place for the ugliness and dirt of politics. And no matter how objective the attempt, any political pronouncement by any preacher on any political cause whatsoever is subject to personal opinion. Who am I to impose my political opinions on you from the pulpit? Too many landmines; can get yourself blown up. So, this sermon is not about politics.

Jesus says, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And for 2000 years we have been trying to figure out how to apply Jesus’ formula. Many have thought that Jesus’ statement establishes two separate realms, Caesar’s and God’s, and that people need to render to each respective realm what they ask for. However, if Jesus were to comment on these efforts he would say “that’s not what I meant.” Let me explain.

Since Jesus has come to Jerusalem his stock has risen considerably. The people are impressed with his teaching and actions. And the religious leaders are getting desperate to get the upper hand. They have to find a way to trap him into saying something stupid, something they can turn into charges of sedition or blasphemy. After much consideration, they have come up with a simple but clever question for Jesus. They approach him with a bit of insincere flattery and then pop the question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

Now Jews in the first century paid several taxes: tithes to the temple (averaging about 21% a year), customs taxes, and taxes on land. Jesus’ opponents were not questioning taxes in general. Their question was more specific: Should taxes be paid to Caesar? Tiberius, the emperor of Rome, was the head of an imperial domination system. Ever since 63 B.C.E. the Romans had ruled the Jewish homeland through client kings such as Herod and governors. The tax in question was the annual tribute tax to Rome. Jews were divided about this tax. The temple authorities and their retainers, the scribes, collaborated with Roman rule and endorsed the tax. But Jews sympathetic to the resistance to Roman authority rejected it. Such a refusal was the equivalent of sedition.

The question seeks to put Jesus in a trap. Either a yes or no answer gets him in trouble. “Yes” would discredit him with those who find the imperial domination system reprehensible and unacceptable. “No” would make him subject to arrest for sedition. This is why the Herodians, no friends to the Pharisees, are in on the ploy. The trap is set.

But Jesus easily sees through their ploy. It’s just too obvious. And he calls them on it: “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” Why are you trying to entrap me? He asks them for a coin and they give him a denarius. He asks them whose image is on the coin? Of course, the coin has the image of the Emperor Tiberius. They admit as much.

Then Jesus gives them one of the great non-answers of all time: If it’s Caesar’s coin go ahead and give it back to him. I can imagine Jesus saying this with a dismissive shrug. Then he adds, “Give what is God’s to God.” It is a completely ambiguous answer. The text provides no clue as to what he means. Jesus’ answer is deliberately enigmatic simply to avoid the trap they are trying to set for him. His response was never meant to be figured out. It was a skillful parry to the enemies’ thrust, designed to deny the authorities any solid ground for proceeding against him. In other words, this is a masterful piece of waffling. It is not a treatise on the sacred versus the secular. It is not a formula for the separation of church and state. It provides no guidance for doing your taxes. It neither claims taxation is legitimate nor gives aid to anti-tax activists. It neither counsels universal acceptance of political authority nor its reverse. In other words, what Jesus tells those conniving plotter’s is merely a trick answer to their trick question in order to get out of the trap. It is not about politics.

On the other hand, it is all about politics. There was nothing that Jesus said or did that did not have political implications. Or more precisely, there was nothing that Jesus said or did that was not part of the political culture in which he lived. And, as with every culture, politics was deeply intertwined. In the sense that Jesus’ actions had an impact on the culture, so his actions had an impact on the politics of his time.

You see, whereas there can be a separation between church and state, there really is no separation between sacred and secular. Everything we do, every religious act, every political act, is acted out in the same realm. Paul Tillich, the reformed theologian of a generation ago, put it this way: “Every work day is a day of the Lord, every supper a Lord’s supper, every work the fulfillment of a divine task, every joy a joy of God. In all preliminary concerns, the “Ultimate Concern” is present, consecrating them. Essentially the religious and the secular are not separated realms. Rather they are within each other.” And so Jesus’ words and actions acted within the culture and thus had political implications. In some ultimate sense, everything belongs to God. And so our religious and spiritual acts work within the culture and politics of our time just as they did for Jesus.

But so also does culture work on us and our religious acts. Again Tillich says: “Every religious act, not only in organized religion, but also in the most intimate movement of the soul, is culturally formed.” This is what is called a “mimetic” approach to culture. We don’t define ourselves individually but are, in fact, a reflection of our culture. And the effects of the culture do their job on us. We are hardly aware of the pervasive ways the culture shapes our minds and spirits, especially in this technological age. Tillich says: “Man is supposed to be the master of his world and himself. But actually he has become a part of the reality he has created, an object among objects, a thing among things, a cog within a universal machine to which he must adapt himself in order not to be smashed by it.”

I am becoming more aware of how pervasive technology is in my life, both good and bad. This was brought home to me this past week in two different events I attended. On Wednesday Linda and I attended an award ceremony for The Institute for Health and Healing: Celebrating Science and Soul, a program that has pioneered the art of integrative medicine. One of the honorees was Dr. Abraham Verghese. In his remarks he lamented the growing trend of what he called the “iPatient.” Medical staff are so dependent on computers for their treatment of patients that they end up treating the virtual patient in the computer and not the one lying in the bed. These days, he said, in a typical 10 hour shift medical personnel spend 6 hours of that on the computer. He yearns for days long past when doctors actually talked to and touched their patients: “high touch” to go along with the high tech. Too much technology can overwhelm personal connection.

The next day I attended a conference at San Francisco Theological Seminary on innovation in ministry. The keynote speaker was Dr. Jane McGonigal, a visionary game designer and futurist. She has a Ph.D. in online gaming from UC Berkeley. She truly believes that gamers (and she says there are a billion gamers in the world now, defined as people who play at least one hour a day!) can help solve world problems. She actually made an audacious yet compelling case that the “can-do” attitude of gamers can be utilized in addressing real world problems, like racism, violence, and world hunger, that just as a participant in an online game shoots for an “epic win” so can we have epic wins in the real world. Her book Reality Is Broken: How Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World is a New York Times bestseller. I bought one. Embrace the technological world of gaming, she says.

Both of these events said to me that we need to consider intentionally, think Christianly, about the role, good and bad, of technology in our lives.

But what about politics? Well, one could be rather pessimistic. One might be inclined to side with the French Christian philosopher, Jacques Ellul. In his book, Living Faith: Belief and Doubt in a Perilous World, he says that politics is the source of all the evils that plague our time. “Politics,” he says, “is the acquisition of power.” It is about getting power and holding on to it. It is about defending yourself against the enemy who wants to get your power. He says politics is diabolical. In fact, politics is, literally, the devil. “Politics produces nothing but division and inner conflict, which are useless, baseless, and absurd,” declares Ellul. “It invents ideologies that get us ready for war and turns us into killers. It stirs up irreversible conflicts. Thus politics makes differences murderous, conflicts irreversible, disagreements irreparable. This is true diabolical discord.”

And of course, politics creates enemies. Those who are not like us, our enemies, in them evil is concentrated. Only when we drive them out will evil be driven out. Evil will be destroyed when we destroy them. The enemy needs to be annihilated. It is not surprising that we hear talk these days of just wiping out all Muslims everywhere. But, of course, we Americans are blameless. It’s like that Randy Newman song of a few years ago, Political Science:
No one likes us, I don’t know why. We may not be perfect, but heaven knows we try. And all around us, even our old friends put us down. Let’s drop the big one and see what happens…

So what are we to do? Well, I don’t think it is to run away from political engagement because we might find it too distasteful. It isn’t to abstain from political engagement because it is fraught with the potential for abuse of power. It isn’t to throw up our hands in helplessness because the issues are too overwhelming.

Instead, I think it is to keep following Jesus. And following Jesus means being engaged. It is to keep doing justice. Some approach the church’s engagement in the world to be that of doing charity, meeting temporal needs. But I am convinced that doing justice means being engaged with the structural injustices that plague our society. And that necessarily means getting political. So I guess you can say that my sermon title is a lie: It is, indeed, about politics. Amen.

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