Who Should I Vote For?
The title of this message, “Who should I vote for?” is a question that is on the mind of many people, both Christians & non-Christians. Although it seems that this political
season has lasted for years – which it has! – we are
getting down to crunch time. We are 16 days from election day.
Christians concerned about political issues & church-state relations often turn to today’s reading, hoping to find a principle to guide them through the maze of today’s controversies. We must be careful, however, not to draw from the passage more than it contains.
According to Matthew & Mark, the question about paying the Roman tax is brought to Jesus by a coalition of Pharisees & Herodians. We know little about the Herodians, but their name suggests that they were a secular political party that supported the right of Herod the Great’s successors to rule the Holy Land. By necessity they were pro-Roman since no one could rule any segment of the Mediterranean world without Rome’s approval. The Pharisees, on the other hand, tended to be pacifists who resented the Roman occupation but accepted it as a necessary evil; they encouraged submission as long as Rome did not interfere with their practice of religion. These diverse groups are brought together in this incident by their common opposition to Jesus. Their intention is to place Jesus on the horns of a dilemma. If he argues against paying the tax, they will be able to accuse him to Pilate of anti-Roman activity. On the other hand, if he supports the tax, he will be bound to lose some of his support by the general public, for whom the tax was not only a financial burden but also a hated symbol of lost freedom.
I should note that the question, while profoundly political, is phrased in religious terms: Does the Law allow… The question can be paraphrased: “Are we permitted to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” One aspect of the legal question involves God’s ownership of the land of Israel, going back to Leviticus 25:23: The land must not be permanently sold because the land is mine. Since Caesar has no intention of returning the tax, is it not an act of disobedience to God to pay the tax to this pagan ruler?
Instead of taking the baited hook by discussing the legal niceties of the issue, Jesus calls for a Roman coin, knowing the tax can be paid only in Roman currency. When a silver denarius is presented to him, he asks: Whose image & inscription is this? Most probably the head of the coin showed the head of the reigning emperor, & the tail an inscription that identified him as “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, Pontifex Maximus.” That is, high priest of the pagan Roman religion. Exodus 20:4 prohibits graven images of any kind. Yet here, in the most holy space in the Holy Land, Jesus’ adversaries promptly produce a coin that violates the Law of their religion! The hypocrisy is obvious. They are happy to do business with Caesar’s coins. Why should they raise a religious question about giving Caesar his due?
Since the question posed by his opponents is answered by his object lesson & the first half of Jesus’ response, the point for us must be found in the second half of Jesus’ answer: Give to God what belongs to God. Perhaps we should imagine Jesus pausing in the middle of the sentence, so that the full force of his conclusion can be felt by his audience. Although there is a parallel between the 2 halves, they are certainly not of equal significance, because Caesar’s role is so vastly inferior to God’s. Jesus is not saying, “There is a secular realm & a religious realm, & equal respect must be paid to each.” The second half practically annuls the first by its importance. In Jewish religious thought, foreign kings had power over Israel only by permission from God. Tax may be paid to Caesar because it is God’s will that Caesar rules. When God chooses to liberate his people, Caesar’s power will count for nothing.
Since the earliest times biblical interpreters have pondered the possibility that the saying implicitly refers to humans as God’s coin, bearing his image. Since men & women are created in the image of God, they belong to him as surely as Caesar’s coins belong to Caesar. To God must be given back what is his. This may seem poetic, but the conclusion is sound. In the second half of his response Jesus demands far more of his followers than in the first half. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns: You cannot serve God & wealth. Here he is saying in effect: If Tiberius wants a few denarii, give them gladly, because giving them up will remind you that a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of his or her possessions. What counts above all else is living in accordance with the Father’s will.
So, how do we give to God what belongs to God? Confronted by a relentless barrage of stress-inducing events, we respond with a draining mixture of exhaustion, rage, disgust, despair, anxiety & grief. We want things to change, but the problems seem so huge that we do not know where to start. We begin to wonder if we could make a real difference anyway. We are overwhelmed.
Sound familiar? It does to me.
And no wonder we are feeling overwhelmed: COVID-19, George Floyd, wildfires in the west, Breonna Taylor, hurricanes in LA & concerns about the stability of our democratic institutions. All in less than one year.
These are big problems requiring sustained, vigorous action. And when we are feeling overwhelmed, the sheer size & scope of the challenges we face can sap us of the energy we need to confront them effectively.
If we look at our challenges as whole — racism, the pandemic, the deep anger in our country — we may feel too small & inadequate to do anything about them. We know that we should do something, but we may struggle to get started.
Here is something the recovery community teaches about that: Do not be frozen in your tracks by the illusion that only big things can make a difference. Instead, just do the next right thing.
Wear a mask in public. If you are white like me, listen to people of color talk about what it is like to be black or brown in our society & resist the urge to defend yourself. Sit with your Bible & read what Jesus says about the poor, the stranger & loving your neighbor. And vote sometime in the next 16 days.
In other words, do something. Do the good that is right in front of you. We know in our heart of hearts that doing nothing to make things better can have the same effect as doing something to make things worse.
Jesus makes this point in a parable that he aims at some of the religious leaders. He said that there was once a father who told his two sons to go work in the family’s vineyard.
The first son flatly refused. But later, he changed his mind, grabbed the clippers & started trimming a few vines. By contrast, the second son said, “Sure thing, Dad!” & never lifted a finger. The second son’s inaction did the real damage.
Jesus was obviously not talking about being a reliable farmhand. He was addressing religious people – like us - about doing God’s work on this planet. That work is to act justly, love mercy & walk humbly with God.
Pursue a just & loving world in all that you do. Only, remember that bit about walking humbly. In other words, do the next right thing. Do the limited, perhaps the ridiculously small thing that is right in front of you today.
Apparently, that is how God has decided to change the world.
As ones who bear God’s image, we are called to be imitators of the one who loves justice. Through Jesus Christ, God has shown us God’s ways. When we follow him with faithfulness, the good news of God’s love results from all we do, including casting our vote.