Faith And Politics
Then he said to them, "Give therefore to the emperor thethings that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." (Matthew 22:21)
Generally I write sermons on Saturday nights and by that time I have a pretty good idea of what I’m going to say. This week, right up until Friday, all I had was a vague idea about the relationship between religion and politics. Sue and I had a couple of days away in Yorkshire and we visited the art gallery in Scarborough. Pride of place there is a huge painting of the prophet Elijah confronting Ahab and Jezebel after the events surrounding the death of Naboth and Ahab’s acquitisition of his vineyard. I’ll be back to that.
Let’s start with Jesus and his answer to the question that was meant to trap him. The Pharisees turn up, along with the Herodians - there’s the plot to “The Odd Couple” right there - and ask Jesus whether they thought good Jews should pay taxes to the Roman Emperor or not. If Jesus says yes then the Pharisees will accuse him of collaborating with the invaders; with the occupying Gentile forces. If he says no then the Herodians will accuse him of being a troublemaker and have him banged up for anti-Roman activities. So Jesus doesn’t give a yes or no answer. He asks one of them to lend him a coin and someone hands him a denarius. He asks whose head on it. On getting the answer, “The Emperor” he replies with - as the King James has it, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and render unto God that which is God’s”.
I’ve sometimes heard it said that what Jesus is saying here is that religion and politics don’t mix. Or that there are two distinct spheres - the spiritual sphere and the secular sphere - and that these should not meet. Certainly there are plenty of voices in our modern, secular society that want to insist that religion should have no place in politics: that our lawmakers should not bring their religious principles into the debating chambers of government and that we, as voters, should not bring our faith into play when we campaign or step into a polling station. That we do not, as an advisor to Tony Blair put it, do God.
Which ought to make you think that’s not what Jesus is saying at all. Jesus’s answer is way more sophisticated than that. First let’s consider what this simplistic “spiritual versus secular” division would imply. It would suggest that there’s a whole pile of stuff in the world that belongs to Caesar and another pile of stuff that belongs to God. Hang on though! Are we really saying that Jesus thinks there’s stuff in the world that doesn’t belong to God? No first century Jew would take that view. Nor should we. There is one God and all the world belongs to God. That’s no less true of politics than it is of anything else.
What was Jesus getting at? I’m going to suggest it’s exactly the opposite of keeping religion out of politics. Before I do I want to make clear one of the real dangers of religion and politics interacting and I’m thinking particularly of the link, in the USA, between Christians and the Republican Party. Let me make clear that it is not the place of Christians to pledge their loyalty to a particular party and that politics is not simply a matter of party affiliation. You can be a Christian and vote Labour, Tory, SNP, Monster Raving Loony, whatever. What matters is that you vote with your conscience and your conscience, as a Christian, has to belong first and foremost to God. End of health warning.
It’s interesting that the coin is a denarius. It was the basic wage for agricultural workers. It was what put food on their tables and kept a roof over their heads. It was what put clothes on their backs and meant they didn’t have to send their kids out to beg in the streets. In short, the Pharisees, the Herodians and everyone in the crowd were using these coins day in day out. They were what kept society working.
You can’t keep religion out of politics. Politics is about how power is distributed within a society. It’s about how people are treated within a society. It’s about the rules that bind people within a society. As such politics is about how we treat human beings. It’s about what we understand about human beings: about the way we value each other and about our responsibilities toward each other. Those things, I suggest, inevitably involve religious beliefs.
Let me give you an example. The American Declaration of Independence says, “We believe these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”. Except it isn’t at all self-evident. Ancient Greeks would never have accepted such an idea. Nor would most societies that have existed in history that hadn’t encountered forms of religion that stress the oneness of humanity. It involves beliefs - religious beliefs about what human beings are and they spring from the idea that every human being is a child of God, made in the image of God and precious in the eyes of God.
What would politics look like if it were really devoid of beliefs and spiritual values? It would be all about power and wealth. It would be about powerful people being able to do whatever they wanted without folk bleating about the oppression of the weak. It would be about everyone getting as much as they could without regard for the needs of others. What would politics look like without spiritual and religious beliefs? I offer you the story of Naboth’s vineyard. I offer you Jezebel: “Aren’t you the king?” - you have the power to do whatever you want. I offer you Ahab who wants Naboth’s vineyard and is happy enough to take it when his wife’s done the dirty work.
In this country I put it to you that religion-free politics is taking us exactly into the world of Ahab and Jezebel. We are encouraged to set aside principles and values and vote for whatever and whoever will make us wealthier: whoever will tax us least and put more money in our pocket without regard to our responsibilities to others. “You want it?” we are encouraged to think, “Put your cross in the right box and you can have it."
“Give Caesar what is Caesar’s and give God what is God’s”. These are not separate worlds: they are an encouragement to involve ourselves in the ways of the world but to do it in a way that honours God; in a way that recognises that we, first and foremost, belong to God. If that is true in the way that we treat those around us, it must surely be true in the ways in which we engage with the political world.
Because the political world is not a separate place. There is one world, and it is God’s world and we are God’s church in the world: the body of Christ in the world. It is our place to follow Elijah and speak truth to power and to insist that the weakest and most vulnerable man woman or child in this world matters. It is our place to follow Christ and speak compassion to wealth and to insist that the poor and the homeless and the hungry matter. It is our place to speak love to selfishness and greed and insist that living well is not about the consumer durables in our houses, but about the contents of our hearts.
Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. We are not separate from the world and its politics. Render unto God that which is God’s. The way we involve ourselves should reflect the love of God.
Lord we are part of your world and all your world belongs to you. May we involve ourselves in the ways of the world in a way that reflects your love for your children and which proclaims the gospel of your son
Preached at Gretna:St. Andrews Parish church