This is a portion of my manuscript from a message preached on Sunday, April 15, 2012 at Northshore Baptist Church. Here’s the AUDIO of the message.
How has the message of Jesus been confused with a political platform or a political party? Is Jesus a Republican or a Democrat? Or is He an Independent or a member of the Green Party? What are the politics of Jesus? This is an important issue especially as we move into yet another politically charged election season. Politics are a volatile issue inside and outside of the church. Inside the church, right or left, how you vote often becomes a measure of your orthodoxy. Outside the church, our culture often views the church as “too political.” In a recent survey by the Barna Group, 75% of 18-29 year olds outside the church surveyed said that present-day Christianity is “too involved in politics.” And that perception, right or wrong, has impacted their view of Jesus.
Last week, we began a new 6-week series talking about how Jesus turns everything in our lives and in our world upside down. From our personal lives to our politics… from our ethics to our economy… from our leadership to our relationships, there is a new beautiful upside down kind of life that Jesus makes possible. And today we’re going to talk about “Upside Down Politics.” And here’s the question we’re going to explore…
What do Jesus’ upside down politics look like?
Now, let me tell you up front—we’re not going to talk about any specific issues in the current political debates. We’re going to focus on Jesus’ perspective of how we should view politics. And to help us do that, we’ll look at Mark 12:13-17 and then talk about 3 Don’ts of Upside Down Politics and 3 Do’s of Upside Down Politics. So let’s read our passage and see what Jesus has to say about Upside Down Politics.
13 Then they *sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Him in order to trap Him in a statement. 14 They *came and *said to Him, “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful to pay a poll-tax to Caesar, or not? 15 Shall we pay or shall we not pay?” But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, “Why are you testing Me? Bring Me a denarius to look at.” 16 They brought one. And He *said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” And they said to Him, “Caesar’s.” 17 And Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were amazed at Him.
Here’s what’s led up to our passage today. Jesus entered Jerusalem, and then went to the temple to “cleanse” it. He drove out all the moneychangers and all the corrupt activity. Afterward He had two conversations with the Jewish leadership and called into question their authority and leadership.
v. 13. When we get to v. 13, some Pharisees and Herodians approach Jesus to ask Him a question. The Pharisees and the Herodians were at opposite ends of the political spectrum. The Herodians supported Rome, and the Pharisees couldn’t wait to have Rome leave Israel, their beloved Promised Land.
v. 14. And before they ask Him the question, they try to butter Him up with false flattery. They feign sincerity. And what they really ask Jesus is whether He’s a real revolutionary. They ask Him a question about the paying the “poll tax,” which is really a “head tax.” It was an annual tax of 1 denarius (one day’s wage) for the privilege of being a subject of Rome. When this head tax was put in place 25 years before, a man named Judas the Galilean led an armed revolt. He called all Jews to refuse to pay the head tax. As a result, He was caught and executed by the Roman authorities. So the Pharisees and the Herodians are trying to trap Jesus. If Jesus answers, “No, you shouldn’t pay the head tax,” He’ll get crushed by the Roman authorities. If He answers “Yes, you should pay the head tax,” He’ll lose the credibility with the people because He’s not revolutionary enough.
3 DON’Ts of Upside Down Politics
I am indebted to Pastor Tim Keller who preached a message called “Arguing About Politics.” His explanation of this passage and Jesus’ answer has shaped much of what I’m about to say. As Jesus answers, here’s the 1st “don’t” of Jesus’ Upside Down Politics… the first thing He refuses to do….
1. Political Simplicity. They’re asking, “Should we pay the head tax or not? Which party are you in?” They set up a simplistic “yes/no” “either/or” situation. And Jesus refuses to answer their question the way they set it up. Think about Jesus and the disciples He chose for a moment. On one end of the spectrum you have Matthew the tax collector. He’s in league with the Roman authorities as he exacts Roman taxes from the Jewish people. And on the other end of the spectrum you have Simon the Zealot who wanted to take down Rome by violence and force. But what’s amazing is that these two guys both put aside their political perspectives to unite around something much bigger than themselves or even Rome. They united together around the kingdom of God, this beautiful upside down kind of life that Jesus made possible. We must not say, “This is Jesus’ political party.” Jesus wouldn’t do it, so why would we do it to Him? There are issues on both sides of the aisle that reflect Jesus’ heart and His kingdom. Jesus won’t be put in a box with political simplicity.
2. Political Complacency. As the dialogue continues, Jesus gives us the 2nd Don’t of Upside Down Politics—Political Complacency. He asks somebody to give Him a denarius. The inscription on one side said “Tiberius Caesar, August Son of the Divine Augustus.” Jesus asks, “Whose likeness (lit. “image”) and inscription is this?” They reply, “Caesars.” And Jesus says, “Render (lit. “pay back what he deserves”) to Caesars what is Caesars and to God the things that are God’s” Caesar’s money has His image on it. His money was minted out of his wealth. You can give Caesar some of what he wants… his money. But you cannot give him what he ultimately wants—total allegiance to his system. You have to stand up to his injustice and his coercion. Jesus refuses political complacency. Jesus doesn’t say “No, don’t pay the tax” and start a revolt. But He also doesn’t say, “Yes, be nice citizens who do exactly what they’re told and who don’t rock the boat.” During Jesus’ day, there was a Jewish group called the Essenes. They dealt with injustice, corruption, and intractable social problems by opting out of the system. They went out to the desert and lived in the caves of Qumran (you’ve heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran). And they refused to pay their taxes because they had left the system. Jesus refuses to allow His followers to go the route of political complacency.
3. Political Primacy. The 3rd Don’t of Jesus’ Upside Down Politics is Political Primacy. Give to Caesar only the things that have his image on it. But give to God your whole life and total allegiance because you have His image in you. When you join His kingdom and His way of doing things, you don’t depend and rely upon Political Primacy. You don’t depend and rely on the world’s system to accomplish God’s purposes. Let’s talk about two different kingdoms:
The Kingdom of the World. The political power structures of the kingdom of the world always are about a “power over.” Every revolution in the kingdom of the world never brings about real change because the values never change. They just re-arrange the furniture. When a new leader gets in power, they do anything to hold onto it. And when we as followers of Jesus rely on political primacy and the system of the kingdom of the world for the purposes of the kingdom of God, it never works out well because even Christians get enticed by the power. We become more like the world.
The Kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is always about a “power under.” Think about this. Jesus has to ask someone for a denarius. He doesn’t even have one. He’s a king without any financial resources. Listen to what Jesus says about His kingdom in John 18:36 – “Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.'” The climax of Jesus’ kingship would not be when He got elected but when He got executed. Jesus isn’t bringing a “better” kingdom. He’s bringing a completely different kind of kingdom… a completely different vision for life. The kingdom of this world is all about changing behavior. The kingdom of God is all about changing the heart. Two vastly different visions. And when we rely and depend upon Political Primacy, the hope that politics will change everything, we’re choosing the kingdom of the world instead of the kingdom of God.
3 DO’s of Upside Down Politics
So what should we do as we engage in the political system… because again, Jesus refuses political complacency and apathy.
1. Be informed & involved. You need to be informed biblically and politically. Biblically, think through what Jesus and the Bible have to say about all the issues we face… from the environment to gay marriage… from abortion to global wars… from poverty issues to immigration, learn what the Bible has to say and how it informs how you engage our political system. Politically, think deeply through the issues as well. Do research. Discover what’s really at stake. Be informed and involved. Exercise your right to vote. If you don’t vote, you have no room to complain about what’s going on in our world. Be informed and involved.
2. Proclaim Jesus. Everything we are called to do as followers of Jesus is to ultimately point people to Jesus and His life and world-transforming hope. That’s the only way hearts and lives will ever really be changed. His is the only revolution that brings lasting change. Here we are, 2,000 years later, and we give names to our children like Peter and Paul and Phoebe and Lydia. And we call our dogs and cats Caesar and Nero. Our hope is not in a political party, platform or candidate. Our hope is in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. That’s our focus. We are on a mission to a broken world, calling people to turn away from building their own kingdoms and come to the God who can turn their lives upside down in a beautiful, powerful way. Be all about proclaiming Jesus.
3. Be gracious & respectful. As you have conversations with people of different political persuasions, be gracious and respectful. We do not live in a Christian culture, and if we are going to have any audience with people and influence upon them, we first need to listen, and then present our vantage point with grace and respect. Grace and respect communicates that you actually care about the other person. If you care more about your position than the person, you’ll lack grace and you’ll come across as disrespectful and you’ll have no influence for Jesus or for His Kingdom. As you engage, be gracious and respectful.