“Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap Him in His words. They sent their disciples to Him along with the Herodians. ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we know that You are a man of integrity and that You teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because You pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is Your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?’
“But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, ‘You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap Me? Show Me the coin used for paying the tax.’ They brought Him a denarius, and He asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’
“‘Caesar’s,’ they replied. Then He said to them, ‘So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s’” (Matt. 22:15-21, NIV).
With our national election approaching, I want to draw your attention to three words: character, civility and Christ. These loom large now and will continue to matter long past the election season.
Character matters most
Jesus doesn’t tell us how to vote. There’s no record in the Bible of the Lord recommending a particular political orientation. It’s clear from the Gospels that He’s not as concerned with our votes as He is with our values. We see that in the example of His life and ministry, where He demonstrates that influence comes from personal character rather than political affiliation. Jesus gives us something so much more powerful than an attachment to a political party. He offers His followers an incredibly attractive way to live that will draw the admiration of the world if we live those values with the character Jesus displayed.
He made those values clear in the most famous sermon ever preached, the Sermon on the Mount. Read it once again and consider Jesus’ description of the character His followers will exhibit. As we journey through the final week of this election season, ask yourself: How did Jesus think Christians would influence the world? How would they be salt and light? Then ask, is Jesus’ description of His followers the public face of Christianity in America right now?
These questions are important because what the world needs most is not another political agenda from the church. It needs Jesus’ people to live more like He did. Broadly speaking, we’ve failed at doing so consistently. The evidence of that failure is an exodus of people, especially younger adults, leaving the church at an alarming rate. Their flight is spurred in part by Christians acting like every other political interest group fighting for a piece of the pie. Instead of grasping for crumbs, we need to offer the world an alternative to the disappointing poverty of politics.
Americans are a polarized people who are desperate for a better way embodied by the communities of faith that Jesus described in Matthew 5:14-16: “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (NIV).
Jesus envisions contrasting communities of people in which old and young, singles and married couples, along with parents and their children, are sharing thriving, vibrant lives together in peace. He sees people of every ethnicity and cultural background and every political affiliation, who share real shalom, not just an absence of conflict. What if that was the public face of Christianity in America? What if we Christians took Jesus seriously and tried to live out the Sermon on the Mount?
Civility, according to Jesus
Civility is defined as publicly displaying tact, moderation and good manners toward people who are different than us or with whom we disagree. Civility is more than just an expression of public politeness, though. It also flows from a commitment of the heart to see other people flourish because God values them.
As quoted above in Matthew 22:15-21, Jesus once responded to a question meant to entrap Him by asking a question Himself. Holding a coin, He said, “Whose image is this?” (v. 20). Continuing, He commanded, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (v. 21).
I imagine Jesus also pointing to a person in that same crowd and asking, “Whose image is on this person?” Every Jew listening would have known that human beings are made in the image of God. They would also have understood, by implication, that showing honor to money because it had Caesar’s image on it meant one should show even more honor to people, because they carry the image of God. Why should we treat other people with respect, even when we hotly disagree with them? We do so because every human being is stamped with the image of God.
This is easier said than done. It is hard to show people dignity, honor and respect if their words, actions and ideologies are anything but honorable, dignified or respectful. It also can be difficult when someone’s values are so different from our own. This challenge is magnified within a culture that celebrates, propagates and profits off of the demonization of the “other.” It is so easy to fall into this cultural current and forget the words of Jesus, “but not so with you” (Luke 22:26, NRSV).
These questions are important because what the world needs most is not another political agenda from the church. It needs Jesus’ people to live more like He did.
In Matthew 7:1-5, Jesus teaches us that it is possible to observe the actions and words of someone you disagree with and simultaneously withhold judgment about them. Withholding judgment does not mean we cease contending for justice and righteousness; it means simply that we observe and wait and ask the Lord to give us wisdom and humility before we react.
Christ at the center
The politicians of Jesus’ day attempted to co-opt Him. In the story where Jesus was asked about paying taxes, an attempt was made to manipulate Him into declaring His political allegiance. His questioners wanted to know if He favored the anti-tax party of the Pharisees or the pro-tax party of the Herodians. They attempted to co-opt His influence for partisan political purposes.
Unfortunately, the political parties of our day are no different—except that they’ve been successful in getting many of Jesus’ followers to believe that somehow the Lord can be squeezed into one of the two major political parties.
Jesus had a simple response to His questioners: Give to God what is God’s. He was saying, “Don’t give your ultimate loyalty—your heart, your passion, the very core of your being—to anything or anyone other than God.” When we fail to heed His command, we become idolaters.
Although it pains me to write this, many Christians in America have unwittingly fashioned their political affiliations into idols. How do you know for sure if you’ve made something an idol? You are devastated, you are destroyed, when it is taken from you. If your house burns down, or you lose your job, you may be sad or overwhelmed, even, and say, “What I’m going through is really hard.” But if your possessions or your job have become an idol, you say: “This is the end. There is no hope. My life is over!”
According to pastor and author Tim Keller, contemporary politics in America has become an idol for many. In “The Signs of Political Idolatry,” Keller writes: “When either party wins an election, a certain percentage of the losing side talks openly about leaving the country. They become agitated and fearful for the future. They have put the kind of hope in their political leaders and policies that once was reserved for God and for the work of the Gospel. When their political leaders are out of power, they experience a death. They believe that if their policies and people are not in power, everything will fall apart … In our politics [we believe] that opponents are not simply mistaken, they are absolutely evil.”
Jesus gives His followers who are Democrats, Republicans or independents the ultimate secret to live together in peace. He says: “Make Me the center of your life. Make Me the center of your relationship with one another, and politics will not separate you.” We will be able to live together in peace and be a “city that is set on a hill” with Christ at the center (Matt. 5:14, NKJV).
Prayer + Reflection
- Pray and humble yourself before God. Ask Him to remove any idolatry from your heart, and to fill your heart and mind with His words above all.
- Spend some time thinking about people you know who are completely different from you. Ask the Lord to give you His eyes to see them and love them where they are, and to bless all your interactions.
- Ask God for wisdom and care when having conversations with others, and make Him the center of every encounter you have this week.
- As we prepare for the upcoming election, pray for a spirit of national unity. Ask the Lord to heal the fractures that exist between generations, cultures, ethnicities, and men and women, as only He can.
Share your thoughts. See comments below, and add your own.