The authorities in Jerusalem are on edge. It’s the season of Passover and it holds ancient, dangerous memories. Jesus has already caused a stir by entering the city in procession and causing a scene in the temple, so the religious authorities meet and plot against him. They try to fix Jesus on the horns of a dilemma by asking this explosive question: ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?’ Jesus recognises the attempt to discredit him: Tell the people to pay up – and he’s on the side of the Romans – tell them not to pay and he is guilty of sedition. In a corner what can Jesus do? Well, he asks for a coin embossed with Caesar’s image and gives this answer: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s” – i.e. everything.
Now, we should not read too much into this passage. Jesus is not providing us with a political programme. It’s really a plea by Jesus to the Jews to get right with God. Yet it does provide us with an opportunity to think about Christianity and politics.
In traditional Christian theology, Jesus is understood as Prophet and as Priest and as King. Let’s start, then, with “prophet”. What it might mean for the church to be a prophetic community? Often the prophet speaks truth to power and to a community of faith based on common convictions. But that doesn’t work with a society that no longer believes in our God. Christian belief that human beings are made in the image of God is one basis for belief in human dignity. We bear the stamp of God just as that coin that was given to Jesus bears the stamp of Caesar. But if you don’t believe in God then convictions about the image of God are meaningless. There is also the uncomfortable fact that if the Word speaks first to the people of God, then it is hard for the church to expose injustice and wrongdoing when the world looks at it and sees imperfection. ‘Let judgement begin with the church!’ is the fundamental message of the prophet.
That brings us to another of Christ’s offices – Christians are called to bear witness to Christ’s sovereign rule. And that means opposing everything that resists or contradicts his rule. Jesus’ realm is founded upon justice and peace and so we work for justice and peace in society. As Christians we have to accept that the rule of Christ in the world is contested and not yet complete. And that means that at times we have to accept compromise: the world is not yet as Christ wants it to be.
The problem that Christians themselves do not agree on what is sinful. And it’s not enough just to appeal to the Bible. It’s all in the interpretation. Actually, there’s a place for leaving to the Emperor things that are the Emperors and keeping God well out of it. Indeed, there is danger in claiming God for our causes. If you think about the Ten Commandments, there is that command about not taking the Lord’s name in vain – maybe it’s about avoiding tying God’s name to our crusades.
What, then, about the third of Christ’s offices: Christ the priest. This, of course, is at the heart of the Church’s ministry to the world. When we gather together to worship God, we become a place where earth is open to heaven. It’s maybe not so exciting a ministry. We might prefer to be campaigning and protesting and manning the barricades. But it’s the one thing that is distinctive about the church, the one thing the world needs us to do for it.
So, give to the Emperor the things that are the Emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s. In an increasingly post-Christian, secular world the place of the church is not what it was. By virtue of Christ we are a prophetic, a kingly and a priestly body. But let us acknowledge that the prophetic word addresses us first and holds us to account for our commitment to Jesus. And let’s above all be faithful to our calling as a priestly community who unite in praise and worship, in prayer and in supplication for our world, and who bear witness that Jesus and not the Emperor is Lord.
Revd Sabrina Groeschel