Religion and politics don’t mix. I’ve heard this all of my life and have only recently begun to question where this idea came from. I understand separation of church and state; I don’t want politicians/government to determine anyone’s religion. But to say that religion and politics are separate doesn’t make sense if we care to examine the origins of Christianity. Jesus walked between politics and religion with more grace than an Olympic gymnast on a balance beam.
For generations we have allowed ourselves to be distracted by misinterpretations and misdirections by those who would sublimate the church’s real power. Jesus had nothing against Jews; he was a Jew. The writers of the Gospels couldn’t have imagined the anti-Semitism that their words were later used to endorse. Jesus, and the writers of the Gospels had issues with the Temple authorities, the Jews who had been appointed by Rome to manage the people under the guise of Temple laws. No doubt there were good men among them who believed they were doing right. However, Jesus took issue with the oppression of the people, the peasants, by the ruling class – Romans, yes, but also Jews in Rome’s employ. They conflated religion and politics in a way that was potentially harmful to anyone who did not hold power. Sound familiar?
The Pharisees and Herodians who came to Jesus to ask about paying taxes were looking to entrap him. They wanted him to say something blasphemous or treasonous. Instead, he pointed out their hypocrisy. Why would a Jew have a Roman coin in their pocket? Because they were paid by Rome. Jesus didn’t comment on that. He simply pointed out that if Caesar’s image was on the coin, then the coin belonged to Caesar. A political statement to be sure. The kicker comes in the second half of the statement.
You, Pharisee or Herodian, whose image do you bear? Oh. Right. There’s that. Keeper of the Law or follower of Herod, both made in the image of God. And, yes, even those peasants milling about in the outer courts of the Temple, they, too, are made in the image of God. So, if a coin bearing Caesar’s likeness belongs to Caesar, what of a life bearing the image of God? Have you given that to God or are you too worried about following Caesar’s rules of oppression?
Jesus has just landed an awe-inspiring back-handspring in the midst of this unsuspecting crowd. They don’t know if they should applaud or run away in fear. Funny thing, neither do we. We get so focused on keeping religion out of politics that we fall for the illusions cast by those in power. We see only shiny coins flipping in the air, flickering with fear and divisiveness before being caught by the hand of one claiming ultimate authority. When’s the last time we went looking for the image of God in ourselves or our neighbors? Maybe it’s time to pay more attention to the both the politics Jesus rejected and, more importantly, to those he endorsed.
If today’s Caesars had their way, we would only listen to the voices that promote oppression. We would ban Muslims from entering this country. We would ignore all the “me too” statements on social media. We would sanction the dehumanizing of LGBTQ+ individuals. We would blame victims of violence. We would hold people with serious mental illness responsible for their “weakness.” We would dismiss those who live in poverty as lazy. We would maintain systems that thrive on racism. We would only provide healthcare for those who have financial means. This, and worse, is what the world looks like when we maintain the separation of politics and religion. This is the kind of oppressive system that Jesus whole-heartedly rejected. This is the system that called for the death of Love Incarnate. This is the society so fearful of the ways of Love that they crucified it. This is what happens when religion is self-serving and politics are driven by greed.
It isn’t too late for us to start letting our faith inform our politics. Jesus embodied Love; he served others. He brought healing and wholeness to those who were broken in body, mind, and spirit. He literally re-membered people by restoring them to community. He saw the likeness of God in all he met, even those who could not see it in themselves. If we follow what Jesus taught, then we should be doing as he did. We should be embodying Love and liberating the oppressed. Why? Because we belong to God first and foremost. Caesar’s claims on us are significantly less than God’s. And if we’re paying attention, we see Caesar for what he is – a master manipulator who uses fear to feed his greed and keep the people divided.
Imagine a world in which our religion demands our politics create paths of liberation for all God’s people. Let’s stop pretending that what we have now is informed by any faith that recognizes the image of God in all human beings. Isn’t it time our religion vaults into public life and crashes through the fear that enables Caesar to rule? After all, isn’t that what Jesus did?
RCL – Year A – Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – October 22, 2017
Exodus 33:12-23 with Psalm 99 or
Isaiah 45:1-7 with Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10