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The Politics of Jesus

Jason Micheli —  November 14, 2016 — 1 Comment

6a00d8341fcbf753ef017ee4cfb7c0970dHere’s my sermon from our Saturday evening worship service. At the last minute, given the cultural climate post-election, I chose Mark 12.13-17 as my text. 

For the last 18 months, according to the Principalities and Powers, this Tuesday’s election was supposed to be the most important event in our lifetimes if not in history, an odd and hyperbolic claim for Christians to accept given that the only democratic election portrayed in the Gospels is when we choose Barrabbas over Jesus.

Christians are right to be passionate about the candidates and causes for whom they advocated; likewise, Christians are right to feel somewhere between fearful to righteously appalled over the rhetoric with which Tuesday’s results were purchased.

 Still, as divided as we are as a country, as euphoric as some are over Tuesday’s results and as distraught as others are over Tuesday’s results-

it’s hard to imagine Christians in the first century were so preoccupied as us with whether it would be Nero or Britannicus who would succeed the Emperor Claudius.

That’s because Christians in the first century already were shorn of the mythologies into which we as American Christians have been enculturated. Many of us have been conditioned by the liturgies of Civil Religion to believe that America is the Kingdom and to believe, as a matter of consequence, that the Republican and Democratic parties are mutually exclusive means to serve that Kingdom.

The first Christians knew, as a fundamental of their, what we do not. They knew as basic correlative of their confession that Rome was not the Kingdom.

And knowing that Rome was not the Kingdom, the first Christians knew better than we that the politics made available to them by Rome were not God’s politics.

But rather in world captive to the politics called empire, God had taken flesh and sent his Spirit in order to make a different politics possible- the politics we call Church.

     The Church doesn’t have a politics; as Stanley Hauerwas says, the Church is a politics. 

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    The way Jesus negotiates the question put to him in Mark 12 clarifies that statement: The Church doesn’t have a politics; the Church is a politics.

Before I continue, I should point out that Jesus gets crucified right after today’s passage. If I can just do better than Jesus, I’ll be happy.

Given our hyper-partisan culture, if we can all just take a deep breath, if you can just trust me for the next few minutes, and if we can make it, in Jesus’ name, to the end of the sermon together- if we can just do that then Aldersgate Church will be like a light to the nation, like a city shining on a hill.

To insure I don’t end up, like Jesus, on a cross at the end of this scripture, I want to be as simple and straightforward as I can today. No jokes, no inspiring stories and absolutely no personal opinions- you have my word on that.

I just want to open up today’s scripture passage, unpack it for you and then offer you one clear, bipartisan recommendation that I believe comes out of this scripture.

     “Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we or shouldn’t we? Yes or no?” 

The first thing this passage makes unavoidable is that Jesus is political. It’s not that he’s not.

I know some of you have a Joel Osteen notion of Christianity: that Christianity is a private religion of the heart, and Jesus is about spiritual things. The only problem with that kind of Christianity is that it requires a bible other than the one God has given us.

Mary’s pregnancy begins with her singing of how her in-utero Messiah will one day topple rulers from their thrones and send the rich away with nothing.

Jesus kicks off his ministry by declaring the Year of Jubilee: the forgiveness of all monetary debt.

And for 3 years, Jesus teaches about the Kingdom of God and, because Jesus was a Jew, he didn’t have pearly gates in mind. He was talking about the here and now.

Jesus is political.

The Gospel story begins by telling you about a tax levied by Caesar Augustus to make the Jews pay for their own subjugation. The Gospel story ends with Pilate killing Jesus- on what charges? On charges of claiming to be a rival king and telling his followers not to pay the tax to Caesar.

The tax in question was the Roman head tax, levied for the privilege of being a Roman citizen. The head tax could only be paid with the silver denarius from the imperial mint.

The denarius was the equivalent of a quarter.

So it’s not that the tax was onerous.

It was offensive.

One side of the coin bore the image of the emperor, Caesar Tiberius, and on the other side was the inscription: ‘Caesar Tiberius, Son of God, our Great, High Priest.’ Carrying the coin broke the first and most important commandment: ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ 

And because it broke the commandments, the coin rendered anyone who carried it ritually unclean.

It couldn’t be carried into the Temple, which is why money changers set up shop on the Temple grounds to profit off the Jews who needed to exchange currency before they worshipped.

You see how it works?

      “Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

     What they’re really asking, here, is about a whole lot more than taxes. But to see that, to see what they’re really asking, you’ve got to dig deeper in to the passage. Today’s passage takes place on the Tuesday before the Friday Jesus dies.

On the Sunday before this passage, Jesus rides into Jerusalem to a king’s welcome.

On Monday, the day before this passage, Jesus ‘cleanses’ the Temple. Jesus has a temper tantrum, crashing over all the cash registers of the money changers and animal sellers and driving them from the Temple grounds with a whip. And that’s when they decide to kill Jesus.

Why?

To answer that question, you need to know a little history.

200 years before today’s passage, Israel suffered under a different empire, a Greek one. And during that time, there was a guerrilla leader named Judas Maccabeus. He was known as the Sledgehammer. The Sledgehammer’s father had commissioned him to “avenge the wrong done by our enemies and to (pay attention) pay back to the Gentiles what they deserve.” 

So Judas the Sledgehammer rode into Jerusalem with an army of followers to a king’s welcome. He promised to bring a new kingdom. He symbolically cleansed the Temple of Gentiles, and he told his followers not to pay taxes to their oppressors.

Judas Maccabeus, the Sledgehammer, got rid of the Greek Kingdom only to turn around and sign a treaty with Rome. He traded one kingdom for another just like it.

But not before Judas the Sledgehammer becomes the prototype for the kind of Messiah Israel expected.

That was 200 years before today’s passage.

About 25 years before today’s passage, when Jesus was just a kindergartner, another Judas, this one named after that first Sledgehammer, Judas the Galilean- he called on Jews to refuse paying the Roman head tax. With an armed band he rode into Jerusalem to shouts of ‘hosanna,’ he cleansed the Temple. And then he declared that he was going to bring a new kingdom with God as their King. Judas the Galilean was executed by Rome.

You see what’s going on?

Jesus the Galilean has been teaching about the Kingdom for 3 years. He’s ridden into Jerusalem to a Messiah’s welcome. He’s just cleansed the Temple and driven out the money changers. The only thing left for Jesus the Sledgehammer to do is declare a revolution. That’s why the Pharisees and Herodians trap Jesus with a question about this tax:

           Jesus, do you want a revolution or not? is the real question.

     Come down off the fence Jesus.

Which side are you on?

Politics makes for strange bedfellows.

For the Pharisees and the Herodians to cooperate on anything is like the Republicans nominating a lifelong Democrat to be their nominee. And that’s not even an exaggeration because the Pharisees and the Herodians were the two political parties of Jesus’ day.

The Sadducees were theological opponents of Jesus. But the Pharisees and the Herodians were first century political parties. The Pharisees and the Herodians were the Left and the Right political options.

And instead of Donkeys and Pachyderms, you can think Swords and Sledgehammers.

The Herodians were the party that supported the current administration. They thought government was good. Rome, after all, had brought roads, clean water, sanitation, and- even if it took a sword- Rome had brought stability to Israel. The last thing the Herodians wanted was a revolution, and if Jesus says that’s what he’s bringing, they’ll march straight off to Pilate and turn him in.

The Pharisees were the party that despised the current administration. The Pharisees were bible-believing observers of God’s commandments. They believed a coin with Caesar’s image and ‘Son of God’ printed on it was just one example of how the administration forced people of faith to compromise their convictions.

The Pharisees wanted regime change. They wanted another Sledgehammer. They wanted a revolution. They just didn’t want it being brought by a 3rd Party like Jesus, who’d made a habit of pushing their polls numbers down.

And so, if Jesus says he’s not bringing a revolution, the Pharisees will get what they want: because all of Jesus’ followers will think Jesus wasn’t really serious about this Kingdom of God stuff, and they’ll write him off and walk away.

That’s the trap.

     “Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Is it or isn’t it?’ 

     If Jesus says no, it will mean his death.

If Jesus says yes, it will mean the death of his movement.

Taxes to Caesar or not, Jesus?

Which is it going to be? The Sword or the Sledgehammer?

Which party do you belong to?

You’ve got to choose one or the other.

What are your politics Jesus?

Jesus asks for the coin.

And then he asks the two political parties: ‘Whose image is on this?’  And the Greek word Jesus uses for image is ‘eikon,’ the same word from the very beginning of the bible when it says that you and I were created to be ‘eikons of God.’ Eikons of Caesar. Eikons of God.

Jesus looks at the coin and he says ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s but give to God what is God’s.’ 

But even then it’s not that simple or clear because the word Jesus uses for ‘give’ isn’t the same word the two parties used when they asked their question. When the Pharisees and Herodians asked their question, they’d used a word that means ‘give,’ as in ‘to present a gift.’ But when Jesus replies to their question, he changes the word.

Instead Jesus the very same word Judas the Sledgehammer had used 200 years earlier. Jesus says: ‘Pay back to Caesar what he deserves and pay back to God what God deserves.’ 

    You see how ambivalent Jesus’ answer is?

What does a tyrant deserve? His money? Sure, it’s got his picture on it. He paid for it. Give it back to him.

But what else does Caesar deserve? Resistance? You bet.

And what does God deserve from you?

Everything.

Everything.

Jesus is saying is: ‘You can give to Caesar what bears his image, but you can’t let Caesar stamp his image on you because you bear God’s image.’ 

Jesus is saying you can give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.

But you can’t give to Caesar, you can’t give to the Nation, you can’t give to your Politics, you can’t give to your Ideology, you can’t give to your Party Affiliation-

you can’t give to those things, what they ask of you:

ultimate allegiance.

You see, like a good press secretary, Jesus refuses the premise of their question. The Pharisees and the Herodians assume a 2-Party System.  They assume it’s a choice between the kingdom they have now. Or another kingdom not too different. They assume the only choice is between the Sledgehammer or the Sword.

But like a good politician, Jesus refuses their either/or premise. He won’t be put in one their boxes. He won’t choose sides. Because Jesus the Galilean was leading a different kind of revolution than Judas the Galilean.

A revolution not with a sword or a sledgehammer.

But with a cross.

Jesus refuses to accept their premise.

Because his movement wasn’t about defeating his opponents. His movement was about dying for his opponents.

And that’s a politics that qualifies and complicates every other politics.

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     If you’re like me, social media has been a good and uplifting use of your time this week.

The Bible has a word for the red and blue rhetoric we’ve posted and tweeted and liked and shared this week.

Idolatry.

And for some of you, left and right, this is a serious spiritual problem.

So here’s my one, simple bipartisan post-election prescription. It’s one I think we can all agree upon and I think it’s one that might actually do some public good:

     Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself.

     Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself. 

Don’t put Jesus in a box. Don’t make Jesus choose sides. Don’t put a sword or a sledgehammer, an elephant or a donkey, in Jesus’ hands.

Don’t say Jesus is for this Party. Don’t say this is the Christian position on this issue. Don’t say faithful Jesus followers must back this agenda or demonize those who disagree.

Because we all know it’s more complicated than that. Because we’re more complicated than 140 characters and 30 second soundbites. And so is the Gospel.

     Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself. 

I mean, this might be an epiphany newsflash for some of you, but you can find good, faithful, sincere, bible-believing, Jesus-following Christians everywhere all along the political spectrum.

You know how I know that? You’re sitting in front of me.

But what you must not do is insist that Jesus is for this or that politics.

    Jesus wouldn’t do that to himself so why are you doing it to him? 

You’re mixing up God and Caesar.

You’re making Jesus fit your politics instead of conforming your politics to Jesus.

You’re committing idolatry, using your ultimate allegiance to bless and baptize your earthly opinions.

Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself. 

Because when you do-

When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, it becomes too easy to believe that the problems in the world are because of the people on the Left or the Right instead of what the Gospel says: that the problem in the world is what’s in here (the heart) in all of us.

When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, it becomes harder and harder to like your neighbor and it becomes impossible to love your enemy.

When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, you forget that the Kingdom Jesus’ death and resurrection kicked off isn’t a Kingdom that any political party can ever create.

When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, you forget that the Kingdom launched by Jesus’ death and resurrection is a Kingdom:

where trespasses are forgiven, gratis;

where grace is offered, free of charge;

where enemies are prayed for on a weekly basis;

where peace isn’t a soundbite but a practice;

where money is shared without debate so that the poor would be filled; where our earthly differences are swallowed up because its more important for us to swallow the body and blood of Christ at this Table together.

When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, you forget that the Kingdom Jesus brings is you.

Us. The Church.

We’re Jesus’ politics.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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In case you missed it, here’s our Post Election Live Edition of Friday’s with Fleming (Rutledge):