It’s tempting to use the phrase, “Let’s not get political” when looking at our Gospel passage from Matthew 22. But the passage is political. “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,” Jesus says, “and to God what belongs to God.” It reminds us that how we live with others in community, indeed, even how we vote, matters to God.
But Christians for centuries have differed with regards to how the Church interacts with the State. We can broadly divide the Christian approaches to this relationship into distinct camps. At one end of the spectrum are the Anabaptists and those sympathetic to their approach. These Christians tend to look to the Church as the community of disciples and discipleship and try to steer clear of interaction with the State, seeing the Church as a set apart witness to the outside world. At the other end are Reformed Christians and Catholic Christians and others like them, who have a broader and more open view of the role of the Church in society. They seek to transform law and culture with the love and grace of God, working with the State to change and better the State.
All Christians, however, see the gospel as ultimately transformative and at the core of the Christian’s identity and life. All stress the centrality of the Church and its witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. All desire to build and live in the Kingdom of God. All understand the importance of the State in society, recognizing that governing institutions have temporal power to further the common good. All followers of Christ also seek to cultivate virtue in persons and work toward creating a more virtuous society.
Too often, though, Christians have considered that “what belongs to God” is located more in the next life than in this one. The reign of God is proclaimed as something that will only happen after we die, effectively reducing salvation to getting out of this world and going to the next.
One result of this thinking is that people have focused on principles instead of on God. But God wants to give us God’s self, not just good ideas and laws. It’s about a relationship, not just rules. It’s about transformation into the likeness of Christ, every bit as much as it’s about the beginning of that process when we recognize we are justified by Christ. Salvation isn’t just forgiveness. It’s redemption and renewal.
This means, then, that we change our loyalties from power and success and money and ego to the imitation of God, in whose Kingdom servanthood and surrender and simplicity reign. And this is where the State and the Church necessarily come into conflict with one another. The goals of each are different.
So even though we “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar,” when we echo John the Revelator in Revelation 22:20 and say, “Come, Lord Jesus” or confess with the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:3 that “Jesus is Lord,” we are actually announcing our commitment to an upside-down kind of world where the last are first and the first are last. For if Jesus is Lord it means that Caesar is not. If Jesus is Lord it means that the Stock Market is not. If Jesus is Lord it means that our career or home or any earthly possessions are not. If Jesus is Lord is most certainly means that we are not.Verse 22 says that when the Pharisees heard what Jesus said, “they were astonished.” For a first-century person in the Roman Empire the implications of saying “Caesar is Lord” were obvious. It was the shibboleth for loyalty to Rome. Earnest Jews and the first Christians essentially changed their political allegiance when they turned to God instead of the Roman emperor.
Today Christians continue to proclaim that our ultimate hope is in God, not in any action of the institution of the State. Our hope is in Christ and His grace freely given, not any political party or laws passed or mandates overturned. No matter what the State may do, the Church should continue to be led by the Spirit of God, living and being the Body of Christ on earth. It’s how we “give… to God what belongs to God.”