There is a common saying: “The Church doesn’t belong in politics”, and there are many voices in our society who would agree. Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s press officer, famously said of New Labour that “we don’t do religion”, whilst Margaret Thatcher was angered more than once by the Church of England’s positions on the aftermath of the Falklands War, the impact of de-industrialisation, and the creation of the Church Urban Fund. In our own time, there are voices calling for the effective privatisation of faith, relegating it to the realm of personal belief and denying it a role in the shaping of public life and policy. And yet, the Church of England continues to engage in the political issues of the day, not least through the presence of our Bishops in the House of Lords, where they help to scrutinise and revise the laws that shape our lives, and the lives of others around the world.
For many who believe that Christianity and politics don’t mix, Jesus’ saying in today’s Gospel reading is a lynchpin of their argument: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s”. But what did Jesus mean by this, and what did the early Church understand by it?
To understand this we need to look carefully at the details of Matthew’s story in the context of his wider story in the Gospel. Jesus is teaching in the Temple in Jerusalem, in the last week of his life, having constant arguments with the religious authorities. We know from verse fifteen that the Pharisees are not coming with an honest agenda. Instead, they are trying to entrap Jesus into saying something controversial as an excuse to arrest and remove him from public view. Jewish society at the time was strongly polarised (much as ours is today) on many issues, but not least the question of paying taxes to the Roman Emperor. For some, it was simply the price of doing business as part of a large empire: for others, it was blasphemy for God’s people to honour a foreign emperor who claimed divine inspiration. It was a dog-whistle issue, and the Pharisees know it. To make things harder for Jesus, they bring with them a group of Herodians: the Pharisees are on one side of the argument, the Herodians on the other. Whatever Jesus says, he’s going to get into trouble with somebody, and that’s all the Pharisees want.
“So Jesus,” they say, “you’re a straight talking bloke. What do you say? Should we pay taxes to the Emperor or not?” Pregnant pause, expectant hush. Both sides of the crowd poised either to applaud or scream in outrage.
But Jesus sees the trap for what it is and calls it out. He exposes the Pharisees’ cynicism by asking for a coin. They give him a denarius with the Emperor’s head stamped on it. Jesus doesn’t point out (although it’s obvious to everyone) that whoever gave him the coin has brought an image of a pagan emperor into God’s holy temple, but simply asks whose face it is. “Caesar’s”, they say. “Well then,” says Jesus, “give Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give God what’s God’s”. Slam dunk, mike drop. End of argument.
But what does it mean? That the grubby political world belongs in one sphere whilst the serene, spotless world of faith belongs somewhere else? That faith and politics have nothing to do with one another? Not at all. Anyone who has heard Jesus’ teaching in the rest of Matthew’s Gospel knows that Jesus doesn’t think this. For Jesus, everything ultimately belongs to God, because everything ultimately comes from God – all wealth, power, and fame. The Kingdom of God encompasses all of creation, the spiritual and the physical. The Roman Empire and the Kingdom of God are not in competition or mutually exclusive: the eternal Kingdom of God encompasses the political concerns of today and transcends them. Jesus has come not to bring in a new government, but a new humanity. Which side we stand on the polarising issues of our day is less important than whether we live as true citizens of God’s Kingdom, seeking his love, compassion, justice and freedom. Perhaps, in that light, we can speak God’s truth into the burning issues of our day, without letting those issues define us. What are the major issues for people in your community, and how might those issues look different if we viewed them through the lens of Jesus’ Kingdom values?