"Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's" (Matt. 22:21). This is certainly one of the most famous things Jesus ever said. It's a well-known saying within the Christian church, but outside of it as well. Poets, philosophers, songwriters, politicians—most everyone's familiar with this saying of Jesus, and rightfully so, because it also happens to be one of the most brilliant things he ever said.
We see from the context that the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders at the time were sick and tired of Jesus. So, as we read, they "laid plans to trap him in his words" (Matt. 22:15). Like kids on the playground tired of playing with little Johnny, they wanted to find a way to get little Johnny into trouble so he'd be taken off the playground and down to the principal's office—only in this case, what they had in mind for Jesus wasn't a detention, but an execution.
They tried to throw Jesus on the horns of a dilemma and there watch him skewer himself to death. Of course, before they do that, they flatter him a bit, trying to cause him to lose his wits, telling him how virtuous they think he is. "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" (Matt. 22:16). You see what they're doing: they're buttering him up before they try to barbeque him.
Then they say to him: "Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?" (Matt. 22:17). In effect, they're asking Jesus a question without a good answer: "Jesus, are you pro-Roman or anti-Roman? Are you in support of this idolatrous pagan Empire that oppresses us Jews? Or are you a dangerous political revolutionary who's getting ready to strike out against Rome? Which one are you, Jesus? Come on, tell us."
Of course, it's hard to throw the Son of God anywhere—much less on the horns of a dilemma. And so it was in this particular case. Jesus knew exactly what they were up to; he "[knew] their evil intent" (Matt. 22:18). He not only calls them out by calling them "hypocrites," but he also goes on to turn the tables on them in a most delicious fashion, with this most brilliant of statements: "Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's" (Matt. 22:21).
Yet there's something else we can, and should, say about this statement: it's one of the most God-centered things Jesus ever said. Yes, it's a profound statement, but it's also profoundly God-centered. Because this statement is so God-centered, it's also so relevant for you and me given the fact that elections are so close. What are you hoping for as an outcome of those elections? What do you want to see?
If there is one desire that should be in all our hearts during this election cycle, if there's one priority I'd long for you to be committed to this November, if there's one prayer I hope you've been praying, it would be this: that followers of Jesus Christ would render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.
I hope that's your desire as you look forward to voting day, and I hope that's your conviction as you think about these upcoming elections. Looking beyond this November, I hope that's your compass as you think about navigating the often-murky, often-choppy political waters in America today—give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.
Perhaps you've been thinking about how, as a follower of Jesus, you should approach politics. Perhaps you've been wrestling with what the Bible has to say about the way you vote. Perhaps you've been wondering what your pastor thinks about politics: is he conservative, liberal, progressive, moderate, centrist, emergent, all of the above? Or none of the above?
If so, let me tell you this. Here's what I want to be, and, frankly, here's what I want you to be: not necessarily conservative or liberal or progressive or moderate or centrist or anything in between, but God-centered. I want your DNA as a follower of Jesus to shape the way you think about all of life, including the way you think about politics. And that means thinking about politics in a God-centered way.
Unpacking Jesus' royal riddle
God-centered is what Jesus was in his vision of politics, and that's what Jesus calls us to be in this most famous and brilliant and God-centered and relevant of statements: "Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."
Notice several things implied in Jesus' words: first, a conviction about ownership. If his name's on it, he owns it. Therefore, give it to him. Jesus asks for the coin with which to pay the taxes: "[s]how me the coin used for paying the tax" (Matt. 22:19). Of course, he knew full-well what was on that coin: a picture of Caesar, his likeness, and his inscription. It's got Caesar's picture and his name on it; therefore, give it to Caesar. It belongs to him.
Notice, second, that a call to worship is implied in this statement. Notice how this conviction about ownership works in two directions; it cuts both ways. Yes, give to Caesar what's got Caesar's name on it, but give to God what's got God's name on it. Therefore, Jesus hastens to add: "give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." If it's good for the goose, it's good for the gander. If you're going to give to Caesar what's Caesar's—which you should—then you must also give to God what's God's.
But what is God's? What does God have his name on? Where's God's likeness and inscription? What does God have a claim to, and what does he own? Where's his picture? Where's his name?
Let me ask you, fellow Christians and also non-Christians alike: where has the creator God placed his divine image? On what has he put his sovereign inscription? On coins? On temples? On churches? No, on none of these things—on only one thing. On you and on me, on each of us, and indeed, on every human being who's ever lived or shall live. The almighty God has created you in his own image, after his likeness, with his inscription. You bear the image of God—whether you're a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, agnostic, or an atheist.
Therefore, Jesus says to us, give your taxes to Caesar, by all means—or Uncle Sam, for that matter. Whether it's Emperor Domitian or President George Washington, he's got his picture and his name on the coin. But to each and every one of us, Jesus says, "Give everything to God." Give your whole self, your entire person, your very life: that is, as the apostle Paul would say, "I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship" (Rom. 12:1).
Sure, give Caesar money. But give God worship. "Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; / worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness" (Ps. 29:2). "Come, let us bow down in worship, / let us kneel before the Lord our Maker" (Ps. 95:6). "Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness; / tremble before him, all the earth" (Ps. 96:9). "Exalt the Lord our God / and worship at his footstool; / he is holy" (Ps. 99:5).
You see, this wonderful statement of Jesus' is not, in the first instance, a statement of political theology. Instead, it is—fundamentally—a call to worship: to worship God, because God has created you, he has made you, he owns you, and you exist to worship him and him alone. And for the Christian, this, ironically, is his or her most basic political theology—a life of worship and submission to the true and living God, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, President above all Presidents!
But listen, because while there is a call to worship implied in this statement, there is—thirdly—a caution concerning idolatry as well. As sinful humans, we're always confusing these two, blending them together: giving to Caesar what properly belongs to God alone. We're forever mixing them up. Humanity throughout the ages always has. Certainly, the people of Israel did. And so, too, tragically, has the church of Jesus Christ—rendering to Caesar what should only be rendered to God.
Perhaps this is where some of you are right now: you've fused the two together, blending the things that belong to Caesar with the things that belong to God. Maybe you even officiated the wedding of Caesar and God so the two are now one flesh. In your mind, there's very little difference between the mission of the church and the mission of the United States.
When this merger happens in a person's mind—and it can be incredibly subtle, as all forms of idolatry are—that person begins rendering to Caesar the very thing that belongs only to God: worship.
Of course, in the West—not least in the United States—we don't offer worship to Caesar in the way they did in the ancient world or in other parts of the world today. We don't deify Uncle Sam the way the Romans deified Caesar Augustus. But that doesn't mean something like that isn't going on inside your head or your heart, so that you wind up rendering to Caesar—or to the state or the political system—that which is most precious to you, most fundamental about you: your expressions of your worship, your hope, your allegiance, your identity.
Letting Caesar define our identity
When we let Caesar define our identity, we give to Caesar what doesn't belong to Caesar. We do this when we let Caesar or the state call us by name, tell us who we are: our fundamental identity.
You see, Caesar or the state always seeks to define who you are and how you see yourself and others. It works hard to define your most basic sense of identity. Therefore you're an American, you're a Republican or a Democrat, you live in a red state or a blue state, you're a conservative or a liberal or a moderate or a centrist, and so on: political label after political label. These labels, in turn, define our identity. When that happens, these labels control us; they shape the way we see ourselves, and the way we see others.
Do you have a closer affinity to those who share your same political views or to those who share your same theological convictions? Would you have more in common with a non-Christian who votes the way you do or with a Christian who doesn't?
If so, what does that say about your sense of identity? Are you letting Caesar define who you are and what's most fundamental to you and about you? It would be a great victory for Satan if he could use Caesar to divide the church of Jesus Christ.
"But," as the apostle Paul reminds us, "our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ" (Phil. 3:20). We are children of Abraham, and we live by faith just like he did. This means that we are just as he was: "looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God" (Heb. 11:10). As God's people, we recognize that the most fundamental thing about us is that we are "foreigners and strangers on earth" (Heb. 11:13); we are those who are "looking for a country of [our] own" elsewhere, "a better country—a heavenly one" (Heb. 11:14, 16).
Pledging allegiance to Caesar
Another way in which we're tempted to give to Caesar what doesn't belong to Caesar is when we let Caesar have our allegiance. It is an ironic thing that we cannot pray in schools, but we can pledge allegiance to the flag in schools. My fourth grader cannot express his allegiance to the almighty God, but he can express allegiance to the republic for which the flag stands. Doesn't that make you feel just a tad bit uncomfortable, especially when you join others in that sacred gesture of placing your hand over your heart?
The people of God have been, and always will be, tempted to make allegiances with earthly powers. Israel was constantly tempted to do this very thing. So, too, are we—especially as Christians living in this truly remarkable and extremely powerful country called the United States.
The blending together of one's allegiance to Christ and allegiance to country has produced American civil religion. This happens when the values of the Christian faith are fused together with the values of the country: when the life and mission of the church merges together with the life and mission of the country. When this happens, you hear people talk about revival in the church in order to bring about revival in the country—as though the goal of the gospel was to renew America.
Civil religion takes a healthy patriotism, or love of country, and injects it with religious devotion. Civil religion is patriotism on steroids. It is the melding together of faith and flag, Christian ideals and American interests. It therefore becomes a context in which we give to Caesar what belongs to God, without even knowing it.
Where do your deepest loyalties lie? Who has your most fundamental allegiance? Do you feel a greater sense of pride when your candidate gets elected or when Jesus gets honored? Do you have a greater sense of joy when someone comes to your side of a political position or when someone embraces Jesus Christ? Do you more deeply align yourself with your political party or with the people of God? These are the kinds of questions that test our allegiance.
Pinning our hope on Caesar
There is a third way in which we're tempted to give to Caesar what doesn't belong to Caesar, and that's when we pin our hope on what Caesar can do. Israel constantly got sidetracked by looking to Caesar—rather than Yahweh—as the source of hope in difficult times. Let's read how the prophet Isaiah upbraids the people of Israel for placing their hope in an earthly power, i.e., Egypt, instead of the living God.
So, too, can we as Christians can get sidetracked as well. We can place—and at times, we have placed—an inappropriate amount of hope in politics. Through political action and by giving to Caesar what is Caesar's, it is thought that we can stem the tide of secularism, reclaim America for Christ, unleash revival in the country, renew the moral fabric of our society, and so on.
Be careful not to pin your hopes on Caesar, because in the end, Caesar will always disappoint. No matter how good or even how seemingly Christian Caesar becomes, don't render to Caesar what only belongs to God: your hope.
Instead, hope in God. And look to God alone for that human community, that society, that government, you so long for—one in which goodness and righteousness dwells. For God will one day establish his reign and his rule upon the earth through his Son, Jesus Christ.
We have a different President, and he will one day make his power known. We hope for a new heaven and a new Earth, a New Jerusalem, which will come down to Earth from heaven. It will be a city that never goes dark because the glory of God continually shines in it. No dark alleys, no street lights, but the light of the Lamb of God. It will be a city whose gates will never be shut; there will be no police force, no locked doors, no deadbolts, no barbed wire fences, no security cameras.
It will be a city in which you will never hear the sound of gunshot or a crying baby or a howling siren, but only singing, laughing, and celebration. It will be a city where nothing unclean or untrue will enter in; there will be no stealing, murder, prostitution, gang violence, embezzlement, betrayal, or suicide. It will be a city of righteousness, a city in which everyone who's there belongs there, for their names have been written in the city registry—the Lamb's Book of Life (Rev. 21:22-27).
This is what we hope for. This is what we look forward to. This is what we call others to prepare to enter into by faith and repentance. This is what God is calling you to hope in today, by placing your faith and trust in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and the hope of everlasting life.
Of course, there is so much more that you and I must wrestle with as we try to fill out a God-centered vision of politics. Each of us needs to grapple with how it ought to get worked out in the actual voting booth, because I suspect we're not going to find God's name on the ballot in November.
Give to Caesar what properly belongs to Caesar: get engaged in the political process, pick up a voter's guide, show up to vote, contribute money to worthy candidates, attend rallies, perhaps even knock on doors. This sort of thing is all perfectly appropriate for a follower of Jesus. But, as we do all of this, I believe Jesus would want to say to you and me, "Be careful. Caesar is subtle. He can steal your heart without you knowing it. Caesar can become an idol. And pretty soon, you'll find yourself giving to Caesar what isn't really Caesar's at all, but God's: your identity, your allegiance, your hope."
Yes, render to Caesar what is Caesar's, but to God what is God's. Let your vision of life—all of life, including your political life—be God-centered, not man-centered, not Caesar-centered. Each of us must do the hard work of asking ourselves: am I giving to Caesar what belongs to God alone? Who is shaping my identity? Where does my most basic allegiance lie? In what am I placing my hope?
Some trust in chariots and some in horses, some in political candidates and the casting of votes, but we—as God-centered followers of Jesus Christ—ultimately trust in the name of the Lord our God (Ps. 20:7).