The Christian Church in Revolutionary Times (5)

Rendering-to-GodJesus Christ on Politics (1)

If there is one incident in the Gospels where Jesus speaks on secular politics it is Matthew 22:15-22 (see also Mark 12:13–17 and Luke 20:20–26).

15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”

So, the strategy of entrapment was to enmesh Jesus in the intersection of religion and politics by asking about taxation.  This question is intended to place Christ in a “lose-lose” situation.  For, while most people in the Jewish nation hated paying the taxes demanded by their Roman occupiers, the Romans considered public opposition to be treasonous.

18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.

Jesus has already landed a major blow against his enemies at this point.  For, as explained at Ligonier Ministries:

He asks for the coin used to pay the tax, which for pious Jews should be a special copper coin minted with Rome’s approval, not the silver denarius, which is seen as idolatrous because it depicts the caesar’s image and his title divus et pontifex maximus, Latin for “divine and high priest.” Jesus’ enemies are revealed as hypocrites when they produce the denarius (22:18–21). Those who hate idolatrous coinage are carrying unclean money themselves.

Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

One under-appreciated point is that our sinless Savior would never resort to counter-deception to win an argument.  Thus, Christ’s response is both a devastating rebuttal and a wholly true statement.

Note first that Jesus is saying that in some cases the secular and spiritual domains are distinct and separable.  In this particular case, the separation allows mere mortals to submit to the secular government authority without denying their spiritual responsibility to God.

Christ’s response is also a rebuke to politicized Christian leaders.  For they always seek to combine the secular and spiritual realms in order to advance their partisan political goals.  It’s not that such combination is never appropriate, but rather that it is not always appropriate.

22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.

Christ has not only defeated His enemies, but has also articulated what almost eighteen-hundred years later would be conceived as “the separation of church and state.” This concept was introduced in a January 1, 1802, letter by Thomas Jefferson, addressed to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut, and published in a Massachusetts newspaper (emphasis added).

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

We should give great thanks to God for the freedoms we have here in the United States to believe and worship outside the power of government’s control.

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