One of my favorite podcasted pastors is Timothy Keller of Presbyterian Redeemer Church in New York City. In his sermon “arguing about politics“, he points out that Jesus not only revolutionized contemporary conceptions of god, sin and salvation, but he also “revolutionized revolutions“. What does that mean? Well, a lot of Christians like to ask “what would Jesus do?”, as in who or what would he support in modern times, but Jesus himself refused to make such simplistic political commitments. We see a brilliant example of this when Jesus is confronted by the disciples of the Pharisees who were sent to trap him into a political quandary.
They ask him “is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matthew 22:17-21) This simple question put Jesus in an extremely difficult spot, because a simple “yes” would have alienated the meek who viewed these taxes as a means of oppression, but a simple “no” would have been viewed as open defiance of perhaps the most important law of the empire (and most nations to this day). Instead, Jesus chose to give them the not-so-simplistic truth of the matter, as always. He asked them to show him the coin used for payment of taxes and they brought him a denarius. T
he first thing to note here is that a denarius was a small-denomination silver coin at that time, perhaps the equivalent of the daily wage of an unskilled worker in third world countries today. Yet, Jesus didn’t even have a denarius on him! He had to ask for one, thus making him what Tim Keller calls “the king without a quarter“. On the denarius were images and inscriptions that denoted the ruler of the time, who was considered the “son of God” and the high priest or “pontifex maximus“. So here we have Jesus going around preaching that he is the final high priest, the King of Heaven and Earth and the true Son of God, yet he didn’t even have a denarius in his possession, let alone his image on one.
This simple fact pictures the revolutionary nature of Jesus when it came to issues of politics and the nature of kingship. Then Jesus asks the Jewish men “whose likeness and inscription is this” and they respond “Caesar’s”. So he replies, “therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s“. It’s a brilliant response, but it also requires some unpacking. The Greek word translated as “render” really conveys a meaning of giving something back to someone who previously owned it, or giving them back what they deserve. The denarius coin literally bore the image of Tiberius Caesar on it and was minted by his authority, and therefore it belonged to him.
Jesus said there is no problem giving these minted coins back to Tiberius, but that doesn’t mean the taxpayers should pledge any sort of unconditional allegiance to him or even stop being critical of his policies. Unlike the minted coin, we humans bare the image of God and therefore we belong to God. It is in God where our ultimate allegiance must reside, physically, mentally and spiritually. Jesus did not advocate for specific human leaders or political parties or civil policies – instead, he revolutionized the very concept of political action. It is through spiritual regeneration and submission to God that we fulfill our maximum potential of political activism.
Others will come up with grand plans to “revolutionize” human society, perhaps through restructuring the economic landscape, nationalizing resources, redistributing wealth, centralizing authority, etc., but they will always lead their people to physical and spiritual destruction. 20th century figures such as Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot attest to this simple fact. These types of “revolutionaries” will always use their ideologies as a means to an end, and they will always end up seeking wealth, power, recognition, respect and/or comfort.
They will fail miserably to follow the example of Christ 2000 years ago; to heed his complete redefinition of what it means to be a revolutionary and a leader or King. The life of Jesus followed a path which culminated at the Cross, where he had been stripped of all wealth, all power, all respect, all favorable recognition and all comfort. Jesus had forsaken all those things which were suited to the rulers of this world.
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when men hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.” (Luke 6:20-22)
At the Cross, Jesus was even rejected by his Father and made the target of God’s infinite and cosmic wrath. He was poor, he was hungry, he wept, he was hated and humiliated in every way imaginable, but, despite and because of all that, he remained the perfect King over the entirety of creation, and he remains so to this day, seated at the right hand of his Father. His persecution and execution on Earth only made him that much more revolutionary and kingly. Jesus is the “Alpha and the Omega“, the First and the Last, “who is and who was and who is to come” (Revelation 1:8). He is not the means to an end for believers, but the end itself. Any political revolution worth undertaking must begin and end with him and him alone.
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25)