One of the twentieth century’s great pastors said that you should preach with the Bible in one hand and the New York Times in the other. I take that to mean that we must interpret the public realm in the light of the Bible and the relationship we have with Jesus. That is directly counter to the cliché that religion and politics don’t mix. Don’t go preaching politics from the pulpit, is the refrain. Just talk about religion. The reality is that religion does not live in a vacuum but needs the soil of this world if it is to take root in our hearts. We must bring religion into the political realm if we are to live authentically. Our country was founded on the religious principle that “all men [and women] are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.” The marching song of the Union troops during the Civil War was “Mine eyes are seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” The Civil Rights movement in our lifetime was church-based and pastor led. Religion provides the moral compass, the ethical framework, the basic principles that make political decisions possible. There is no way that we can have politics without religion and a religion which pretends to ignore politics is lifeless.
These thoughts come because Jesus got involved in politics. When we look at the gospel story today we find that complaining about the government is as old as the Bible. According to Thoreau, the government that governs best, governs least – that is, until it is your home threatened by a forest fire or a hurricane. No one likes paying taxes, but we do expect our roads to be in good repair, our cities crime free, our medicines safe and effective. When people grumbled in Jesus’ time about taxes he gave the clever rejoinder: render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar. Caesar was the emperor, the embodiment of the government, the face on the dollar bill. Give The Man the taxes which are his due is the obvious implication. But that made me wonder what other things do we need to render unto Caesar? Remember the one time Jesus had an encounter with Caesar – well, not him personally but his representative, Pontius Pilate. Pilate is talking about how big and tough he is and how he’s in control and he asks Jesus what he brings to the table. Our Lord answers: “For this reason I was born and have come into the world, to testify to the truth (John 18:37). That suggests that the speaking the truth is one of the ways that we must render unto Caesar. In the political season there are many different proposed solutions to deal with our situation but until we acknowledge the truth that is out there we won’t get anywhere. The truth is that every human life is precious. We must create an environment where every individual is given a chance to thrive. The truth is that racism has infected our body politic and has leeched into the very bones and marrow of our system. It is not just going to go away on its own but will take concerted effort to root it out. The truth is that the society we have created has produced an income inequality that has hardened people into the haves and the have nots. Things will not change until we work to provide opportunities for everyone. The truth is that we are fastly but surely degrading our environment. There is no Planet B to flee to. We must make the hard choices which will preserve our common home. When we go into the ballot box we have a religious duty to choose leaders who are willing to wrestle with the true condition in which we find ourselves. Religion can’t tell us which of the political proposals will work in alleviating the painful truth but it does demand that we make decisions on the basis of the way that God’s world actually exists.
With that said we can’t ignore the second half of the saying of Jesus. “Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” What belongs unto God? Jesus told us how to find out what belonged to Caesar – look for his image. There it is, on the coin, If we are going to find out what belongs to God we’ve got to look for the divine image. There it is, in the face of every individual whom we meet. The Divine Image is found among the children of God, every single person, and must be rendered unto. We render unto God by treating every child as precious and providing all they need to reach their full potential. We render unto God by giving every sick, disabled or elderly person what they need to live in dignity. We render unto God by welcoming the stranger and the immigrant with open arms. We render unto God by recognizing the humanity and worth of people of other races or tongues. We render unto God when we see the image of God that is stamped on the face of everyone that we meet. It’s not worship, catechism, creed but the way we treat people that renders unto God.
To confirm this look at the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah: “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, Cyrus.” This line should turn your head. Who else have we heard called “the anointed?” Jesus, of course. In fact, the word “Christ,” “Messiah,” are translations of the title “the anointed.” So Cyrus, this Iranian, this pagan, this non-Jew, this non-believer is being given the highest of titles. “I have called you by your name, giving you a title, though you knew me not.” According to the prophet Isaiah, Cyrus, in caring for the Jewish people was, in fact, acting according to the set plan and purpose of God. Did he know he was doing God’s will? No. Did he even know that God was God, “and there is no other besides me.” No. This king who was, no doubt, acting out of his own political calculation and for his own strategic purposes but was nonetheless the agent of God and as a result “the anointed” of God, a Christ, a Messiah. He was acting in ways of compassion toward others and, hence, was rendering unto God. So with us. We can measure our relationship with God in light of our relationships with one another. One of the joys of heaven will be seeing how our small acts of kindness toward others changed the world.