Do you ever wonder what Jesus would say about politics if He were alive today? Would He endorse a certain candidate or political party? Would He take a stance on specific legislation, or at least on particular issues?
Jesus did not talk much about politics, His kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). He actually had opportunities to gain great political power and turned them down (John 6:15). But there was one occasion on which Jesus was asked point blank about His stance on a specific political issue. In Mark 12, it is recorded that a group of Pharisees and Herodians asked Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?”
As it turns out, the poll-tax was a “hot button issue” in Jesus’ day. Historians tell us that it had been instituted in 5 A.D. when Jesus was a boy, and its institution was the cause of political riots. In fact, a man named Judas of Galilee had led a revolt in which He cleansed the temple and told fellow Jews not to pay the poll-tax. In a sense, the poll-tax had become a symbol of the oppression of God’s people by Caesar.
It is no coincidence that Jesus, having spent time preaching about a new kingdom (Matthew 4:17) and having recently cleansed the temple (Mark 11:15-19) was asked for a firm stance on this issue.
And the answer to this question was probably contested by the Pharisees (who opposed Roman rule) and the Herodians (who supported it), meaning that Jesus was being asked about a sensitive issue in front of two political parties who disagreed. To make the situation even more difficult, they ask Him in a way that demanded a straightforward answer: “Shall we pay or shall we not pay?” (Mark 12:15). There was no getting around it, Jesus might have to step on someone’s toes.
His answer was brilliant. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” In one sentence, He must have both pleased and offended both the Pharisees and the Herodians. The Pharisees would be offended that Jesus seemed to support the tax, but pleased that He esteemed God above Caeser. The Herodians would be pleased that Jesus seemed to support the tax, but offended that Jesus would suggest that an allegiance to God might undermine an allegiance to Caesar.
Essentially, Jesus revealed that the issues at stake were more far reaching and complicated than these religious and political leaders were making them out to be. Sure, the money was stamped by Caesar’s mint and had his image on them, so paying the tax was just. But the bigger issue of sorting out allegiances to God and government was and continues to be more nuanced than that.
Maybe if Jesus were around today, He would manage to do what He did in the gospel accounts. He might very well offend all of us, wherever we might stand on particular issues. He might very well defy all political categorization. He might teach us that among all of the complex issues of life, God must have first place (Matthew 6:33), the golden rule must govern our actions (Matthew 7:12), and that His word must be our guide above and beyond all parties and politicians (Mark 12:17, Psalm 119:105).