Here’s a piece I wrote for Mockingbird.
“Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
Two hundred years before they pose this question to Jesus, 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. The Sledgehammer traded one kingdom for another just like it.
But not before he 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 Judas the Galilean rode into Jerusalem to shouts of what? Hosanna. Judas the Galilean 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.
Perhaps you can sense then what’s at stake when Jesus throws his Temple tantrum and when the Pharisees ask Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar.
The only thing left for Jesus the Sledgehammer to do is to declare a revolution, to stand up to injustice, to deliver the oppressed, to cast down the principalities and powers from their thrones.
To take up the sword.
That’s why the Pharisees and Herodians trap Jesus with a question about this tax.
Jesus, do you want a revolution or not?
That’s the real question.
Come down off the fence, Jesus.
Which side are you on, Jesus?
And Jesus responds, “Why are you putting me [the Lord your God] to the test?”
Politics makes for strange bedfellows. 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. They 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 the adminstration was making Israel great again. Rome, after all, had brought roads, clean water, sanitation, and— even if it took a sword— Rome had brought stability to the tinderbox called 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.
On the other hand, the Pharisees were the party that despised the current administration. They were the resistance movement. 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 grass-roots, righteous revolution. They just didn’t want it being brought by a third 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 his followers will think Jesus wasn’t really serious about this Kingdom of God rhetoric. They’ll write him off and walk away.
That’s the trap. If Jesus says no, it will mean his death. If Jesus says yes, it will mean the death of his movement.
Which is it going to be, Jesus? The Sword or the Sledgehammer? Which party do you belong to? You’ve got to choose one or the other. Check the box, Jesus. What are your politics Jesus?
Jesus asks for the coin.
And then he asks the two political parties: ‘Whose image is on this?’
Pretending not to recognize Caesar’s face on the coin, Jesus says “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s but give to God what is God’s.” But 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 uses 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 his 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?
Like a good press secretary, Jesus refuses the premise of their question.
The Pharisees and the Herodians assume a two-party system.
They assume it’s a choice between the kingdom they have now. Or another kingdom not too different just of a different hue. 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. Jesus refuses to accept their premise.
His movement was about defeating his opponents by dying for them, and that qualifies all our politics.
As happened four years ago, we’re told this is the most important election of our lifetimes, and perhaps hindsight will bear it out. But magnifying the stakes so high is dangerous territory for self-justifying sinners whose hearts are idol factories and whose wills are bound.
Speaking as a pastor, I believe it poses a serious spiritual problem.
As a preacher I seldom dole out should or oughts, but here’s an exhortation, a simple nonpartisan election season prescription: 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. Or against that Party. Don’t say this is the Christian position on this issue. Don’t say faithful Jesus followers must back this agenda, should support this issue. Don’t insist that this or that Christian value ought to have only a one-party solution. Don’t demonize those with whom you disagree.
I mean, it should chasten all of us in our political pride that the only scene resembling anything like a democratic election in the Bible is when we shout crucify him, casting our vote on Good Friday for Barabbas rather than Jesus Christ.
I realize how this probably sounds like a modest prescription. But maybe modesty is the best policy. Given what the Gospel reveals about us and what was required for us— for our redemption— maybe modesty is the best policy.
Notice the Gospel promise embedded in Christ’s answer to their question about taxes.
‘“Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, Jesus said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denariuus and let me see it.””
And they all reach into their pockets to produce one.
But notice, Jesus had to ask for one.
The coin that condemns them under the Law, for it bore another god’s image, Christ isn’t carrying one. His pockets are empty. He alone is righteous. Jesus is our substitute not only on the cross but in his faithfulness. And that righteousness— Christ’s permanent perfect score, the Bible promises— it’s gifted to you, gratis and forever, at your baptism.
The currency exchange that matters in Mark’s Gospel isn’t what happens with the moneychangers outside the Temple; it’s what the ancient church fathers and mothers called the Great Exchange.
In in taking the unclean coin from our hands, Christ takes our sin into his own hands.
And then two days later he takes our sin in his body to a tree.
The baptism of his death and resurrection is a refining fire that has rendered you purer than silver and more precious than gold no matter what you render to Caesar.
Where our pocketbooks prove that we have no King but Caesar, he brought down the mighty from their thrones by being lifted up on his cross— his victory, by grace through your baptism, it’s as though you had won it by your own obedience.
Where we fail to render to God the everything that belongs to God and give a lot more heartburn and bother to the Rome we call America, by grace through your baptism you are credited as blameless as Jesus Christ himself.
There is therefore now no undoing it.
There’s the Gospel promise attached to the modest prescription I gave you. Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself. Don’t insist that Jesus fit into your red or blue box. You don’t need to. Because you’ve been gifted Christ’s own righteousness, you have the right to be wrong.
But there’s the rub.
So does your neighbor. They have the right to be wrong too.
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