Political Witness and the Way of Jesus 3: Image Consciousness

T-minus one day and counting before the presidential election! Emotions are running high among people of faith. Scott Sauls, Pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville merely announced the title of his recent sermon, How Would Jesus Vote?, and was deluged with strong opinions … BEFORE he even preached the message. In a similar vein, Christianity Today President & CEO, Timothy Dalrymple’s article, Why Evangelicals Disagree on the President, is itself sharpy debated in the comment threads where it’s posted. Many of the comments argue in simplistic terms, as if the issues surrounding one’s choice for president were clean-cut, neat and tidy, either/or, black and white choices, when the reality for the people those issues affect wouldn’t see it as such.

This series of post has examined Jesus being confronted by religious and political leaders to come down on a hotly contested issue – whether or not to pay a head tax to Caesar. My previous post addressed how Jesus didn’t settle for a simplistic approach to political engagement, nor should we.     

This post attempts to point out that while Jesus eschewed simplistic thinking, he didn’t dismiss the importance of being familiar with and concerned with political realities. At the same time, Jesus doesn’t elevate politics to the level of being all-important. Instead, Jesus models a sensibility that neither ignores, nor idolizes political power.

 Jesus doesn’t cave in to political complacency

After being confronted, Jesus asks one of them to present the coin in question (which is a HUGE deal that I’ll come back to later). The story picks us from there,

 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. 17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” – Mark 12:16-17

Tiberius Denarius

The image would have been of Tiberius. The word Jesus uses here is “icon”. The inscription would have read, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the god Augustus, pontifus maximus – King, son of god, high priest.” No wonder Jewish people were offended. This broke the first two commandments. While this is certainly concerning, Jesus doesn’t react by throwing the coin away in righteous indignation and tell everyone to refuse paying the tax. He doesn’t endorse the blasphemous image and inscription either. He re-frames the question wisely by asking about ownership. In other words, who actually owns this coin? In the Roman world, coins were minted out of the Emperor’s wealth and bore his image. They were his coins. Jesus knew how the system worked.

Why does this matter?

Christians can often make the mistake of thinking that the world system within which we operate isn’t worth navigating, knowing, and understanding. As I wrote in a previous post, living in our “bubbles” or “echo-chambers” in willful ignorance and withdrawal from the world is not an option for faithful Christians. The book of Daniel, chapter 1, records that Daniel and his three friends, after being taken in exile to Babylon, became knowledgeable in the ways of Babylonian culture to such an extent that King Nebuchadnezzar “found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service. In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.” (Daniel 1:19-20) When Paul, the Apostle was arrested and flogged without a trial, he appealed to his Roman citizenship as a means of demanding accountability for their unjust treatment. (Acts 16:35-39)

 So the brilliance in Jesus’ answer here is two-fold. One, he acknowledges the system of ownership and therefore makes it clear that paying the tax is not an endorsement of blasphemy. Two, he clarifies that the tax is NOT a gift to Caesar. In Mark 12:14-15, Jesus is asked “Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” The word translated “pay” in these verses is from a Greek term meaning “gift,” but when Jesus answers them in verse 17, he uses a verb meaning “to give back what one deserves.” Tiberius owns the coin. Give him back what he already owns. You’re not wrong to give him back what’s his; you’d be foolish not to. Give to Caesar only what has his image. Give only to God what bears HIS image. We are instructed to return to governing authorities’ those reasonable services and resources by which we benefit as citizens.

Jesus does not allow for his followers to opt out and drop out of the political and cultural system. Why? Many cultural problems require political solutions. In an article for the Witherspoon Institute, Greg Forstner writes,

“Nowadays, we hear it preached up and down the land that ‘politics is downstream from culture.’ It’s certainly true that almost none of our most urgent problems will be cured, or even significantly affected, by one party or the other winning the next election. But, in fact, politics is not ‘downstream’ from culture. Politics is part of culture, and some of our cultural problems are political problems that demand political solutions. Purely ‘cultural’ approaches will not work, for the problem is political: it involves justice and law … But the political solution must simultaneously be a cultural solution.”

And yet, as important as it is for Christians to engage in political systems, those systems alone cannot fix everything. This is why …

Jesus doesn’t promote political supremacy

In Jesus’ day, a radical group of religious people called the Zealots, sought to engage political opponents through aggressive theocratic revolt. They refused to pay taxes and believed the way forward was to seize cultural dominance and political power. Jesus did not support this approach any more than he supported simplistic thinking or complacency.

In the section above, I wrote, “We are instructed to return to governing authorities’ those reasonable services and resources by which we benefit as citizens.” I would add to that, however, we should not, and cannot give full and final allegiance to any human governing authority. Such allegiance belongs only to God; whose image we bear.

When Jesus says, “Give to God what is God’s – also translated, “Give to God what bears HIS image.” The English language doesn’t capture how subversive a statement this is. In this short, but powerful phrase, Jesus is reminding his detractors that there is an authority over Caesar. People who bear the Image of God cannot be given to Caesar because they aren’t Caesar’s. There is a better King and a better Kingdom coming.

But God’s Kingdom is not coming by way of idolatrous and misguided grabs at cultural primacy and political power. Jesus’ way is in and through love and service to God manifested in love and service to neighbor. Jesus refused to allow politics to be the primary way his followers connected with the systems of power. Why? Because many of our problems are not primarily political, but cultural. Steven Garber illustrates this when writing about the way William Wilberforce and other early abolitionists confronted the practice of slavery. The culture had to change in order for the politics to change. He writes,

“They knew that the problem of slavery and the slave trade was not first of all a political problem, but a cultural problem.  As long as the British people had no objection to the trafficking of human beings, the politicians wouldn’t either; in fact because slavery was the economic engine of the empire, it would take a major reframing of the meaning of the commonwealth and therefore the common good of the English people, for the laws to change.” – Dr. Steven Garber – Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture

Jesus won’t let his followers have a simplistic approach, won’t let them withdraw from the political process, nor let them see political power as the only way in which to deal with injustice. So what example does he set? The answer is in Mark 12:15

Jesus displays awestriking sensibility and presence.

“Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.”– Mark 12:15

Jesus didn’t even have the coin they were using to question him. He had to borrow one from them.

Irony anyone?

By asking for a Denarius, the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and Herodians was exposed. By possessing and showing one to Jesus, they answered their own question. By using Caesar’s coinage, they were tacitly acknowledging Caesar’s authority and thus their obligation to pay the tax.

Jesus’ response demonstrates his presence in a system, his knowledge about the system, as well as his subversion of the system. He both defies and resonates with the political system.

So, what DOES Jesus do? He reveals the void, the gap, the chasm, the empty space created by a simplicity that leads to assimilation, a complacency that leads to fortification, and a primacy that leads to domination. He models a wisdom and sensibility that points to his incarnation and the power of the gospel.  

The gospel frees us from being driven by systems of power, comfort, success, and recognition and calls us to be a redemptive presence in those systems and in the gaps they create. This will move you become more political than ever, but not in a way that ties you to man-made systems. You will become too conservative for progressives and too progressive for conservatives. In other words, like Jesus, you’ll begin to both resonate with and defy cultural and political systems in a manner that will transcend simplicity, complacency, and primacy. You’ll do politics like Jesus; and no matter this election’s outcome, the world needs you!

On the eve of election day, I hope this post can provide confidence, comfort, and clarity on how Christians can thoughtfully and faithfully engage in the political process.

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