All Saints, Morton—Matthew 22:15–22
I certainly don’t need to remind anybody here that this is a presidential election year. And I doubt I would get very much pushback if I suggested that “toxic” is a good word to describe the political environment that we inhabit. For my entire life, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, have attempted to extend their influence, appeal to voters, and advance their ideological agenda. But the degree of sheer polarization that has dominated our political world for the past several years is unprecedented. Candidates at every level, ordinary citizens at every level, are under immense pressure pick a side and stick to it. “Compromise” is a dirty word, both for the right and for the left.
As a Christian pastor, my larger concern is that this polarization, if not always the full extent of the toxicity—the polarization that characterizes the secular political sphere seems to map pretty neatly onto the Christian community, often without any significant variance from the secular norm … which is to say, if you gather a group of 100 active practicing Christians and a group of 100 unbelievers or just nominal Christians, the same distribution of political views is going to show up in each group. So, this leads to an obvious question: What difference does our faith make in our political involvement, our political conversation? Does Christian faith even add anything distinctive to how we understand the world? And if not, what, then, is our witness to the world? What is our message to the world in this toxic election year?
Today’s gospel shines some light on this question. It’s a familiar passage: Rather late in Jesus’ ministry, the religious authorities engage in a succession of rather desperate efforts to entrap him into incriminating himself, so they can neutralize his popularity and influence among the people. So they ask him a loaded question: Should a faithful Jew pay taxes to the Roman government, or not? If he says yes, they can portray him as disloyal to his own people. If he says no, they can portray him as a threat to Roman rule. Either way, they win.
But Jesus refuses to be impaled on the horns of their dilemma. He asks for a coin, observes that the image on the coin is that of the Roman emperor, and then delivers the famous punchline: “Render to Caesar that things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” And, indeed, it’s all about that punchline.
Applying this to ourselves, then, what can we identify as belonging to “Caesar” such that we legitimately owe it? What obligation does a Christian owe to the secular government? For starters, most of us will agree that we owe obedience to laws that are not in themselves unjust or evil. We may not like certain laws, but we still have to obey them; Jesus himself commands us to. I may not like the tax code, or the way the government spends the money it collects, but I still have to pay my taxes. Sometimes, we may even owe “Caesar” our lives, such as a member of the military in combat, or if we are guilty of wantonly taking the life of another human being.
So, we are under an obligation to obey even bad laws, just not evil laws. Of course, where the line between “bad” and “evil” lies is usually pretty fuzzy, but perhaps such things as the purge of Jews by Nazi Germany or the Jim Crow south telling African Americans to move to the back of the bus can be recognized as evil laws that a Christian need not—indeed, must not, obey.
So, how about the other direction? What do we owe to God that we don’t owe to “Caesar?” For starters, we owe God our ultimate affection and loyalty. This is not merely an option; it’s a debt. And part of this loyalty involves allowing our political involvement to be shaped by the values of the gospel. When we accept the demands of discipleship—as we have all done when we were baptized or confirmed, or when we have renewed our baptismal vows—when we accept the demands of discipleship, we surrender the right to contend in the public square solely for our own self-interest and the interests of those closest to us. To put it more bluntly, we are no longer free to vote just the way we want to. Instead, the water of baptism obliges us to see the world through the eyes of Jesus, who looked on the crowds, saw that they were “harassed and helpless,” and had compassion for them. If there is ever a moment to ask, “What would Jesus do?” it’s when we’re in a voting booth! Letting the gospel inform our voting is one way of rendering to God the things that are God’s.
It’s possible for a faithful Christian to do this while being a full-on socialist or a free-market capitalist, favoring a strong military deterrent or complete disarmament, supporting the war on drugs or supporting full decriminalization of all drugs, in favor of air-tight national borders or unrestricted immigration. Any of these positions can be articulated in a way that is plausibly not just compatible with the gospel but supportive of the gospel. There is no “Christian position” on the proposed constitutional amendment in Illinois to reform the state income tax. I have an opinion, but that’s just Dan Martins, not the teaching of the Bishop of Springfield!
There are some core values of the gospel that must inform the conscience of a Christian, and the political involvement of a Christian: At the center of these values is the conviction that every human being, without exception, bears the image of God, and every human being, without exception, deserves to be treated at all times with dignity and respect. And if that’s the first and great commandment with respect to Christian political involvement, then the second is like unto it: All human life is sacred, from conception to natural death.
This is not a long list, but it covers a lot of territory. So, as you prepare to render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God, as you consider candidates and public policies, run all your decisions through these filters: Does Candidate X or Policy Y respect the sacredness of human life? Does Candidate X or Policy Y treat every human being with dignity and respect, seeing in them the image of God? If your intended vote comes through those filters intact, cast that vote knowing that you have been a faithful disciple of the Lord Jesus. Amen.