The scribes and the chief priests tried to lay hands on Him that very hour, and they feared the people; for they understood that He spoke this parable against them. So they watched Him, and sent spies who pretended to be righteous, in order that they might catch Him in some statement, so that they could deliver Him to the rule and the authority of the governor. They questioned Him, saying, “Teacher, we know that You speak and teach correctly, and You are not partial to any, but teach the way of God in truth. Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But He detected their trickery and said to them, “Show Me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” And He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were unable to catch Him in a saying in the presence of the people; and being amazed at His answer, they became silent. —Luke 20:19-26This week, I’d like to begin a two-part eSight. There are two sections of the above passage that have been impressed upon my heart recently, especially in light of the political environment heating up again here in the United States. If you are not a resident of the U.S., just apply it the best way you can in your own country. The two phrases I want to address are “deliver Him to the rule and the authority of the governor” and Jesus’ words, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” We’ll cover the latter next week and discuss the former here.
I don’t know if this jumps out at anyone else, but I see a striking parallel in the desires of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day and what many Christians desire today. What I mean by this is, on the whole (and praise God for the few exceptions), it seems to me that within Evangelical Christianity here in America there is an ever-increasing dependence on the “rule and authority” of the “governors” of our day as the means through which religious agendas are enforced. To a degree, this is the very same “method” those who claimed to be God’s people used back then, but the irony is that God’s people were seeking to use the rule and authority of the governors against God Himself. (What terrible blindness.)
But let’s back up a bit and look at this from the ground up. Let’s take a brief look at two passages.
“And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest. And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:24 -27)
What I want you to note in this passage is the distinction Jesus makes between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom He came to establish. One is what Jesus called “power over,” while the other is what we could call “power under.” The kings of this world use their power over their subjects to govern them. We are called to be citizens of a kingdom that comes under people and seeks humbly to serve even its enemies. I can already hear some of you saying, “But kingdoms can’t be run that way!” And I agree that the kingdoms of this world cannot. But the kingdom Christ has called us to help establish and be a part of can. The tragedy is when those who claim to represent Christ’s kingdom use the method that the kingdoms of this world use rather than that of the kingdom of Jesus.
Let me contrast these two methods a bit further with a second passage.
“And behold, one of those who were with Jesus reached and drew out his sword, and struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:51-52)
It’s not simply a choice between Caesar or God; it’s a choice between using the power of the sword or the power of the cross. The power of the sword is a violent, “power over” kind of power. The power of the cross is a humble, non-violent, turn-the-other-cheek, serve others, “power under” kind of power. This is a power that supports people and loves them, desiring simply to serve them. Jesus provides great wisdom regarding the futility of the power of the sword here, too. Violence always escalates, and those who live by the sword will eventually die by it as well; this is evidenced throughout human history. In contrast to this is Jesus’ call for His followers to embrace non-violence. We see this call expressed with stark clarity in Matthew 5:38-48 and Luke 6:27-29. I’d like to encourage you this week to take the time to thoughtfully read through these passages. What makes them so powerful is the backdrop against which Jesus spoke these words. God’s people were being ruled by a Pagan power and everything about Rome, including its lack of morality, was an offense to Jesus’ Jewish audience. In fact, they were looking for a Messiah who would simply wield the power of the sword more effectively and deliver them from this Pagan rule. When their Messiah did appear, it wasn’t just any Messiah; this was God who came and called them to lay down the power of the sword and instead embrace a life of love. Wow! How did they respond? They were so invested in the power of the sword that they turned and used this power on God Himself.
But for those who embraced it, it was this laying down of the sword, this love that gave such power to the movement of Jesus’ followers of the first century. How did it all change? How did we get from the first century to the amalgamation of 21st century modern evangelical American Christianity?
It all changed on October 28, 312 A.D., when Constantine defeated his rival to become sole ruler of the Roman Empire. What makes this event relevant to Christianity is that Constantine attributed his victory to his newfound deity, Jesus Christ. He allegedly received a vision just prior to the battle that promised him victory if his soldiers marched with the sign of Christ on their shields. It was the first time in history that the name of Jesus was associated with the nationalistic, violent power of the sword. After this precedent was set, however, it would not be the last time such an association was made. Eusebius, Augustine, and other church leaders interpreted Constantine’s vision and the consolidation of power that his victory engendered to be from God. The power of the sword was used for centuries to crush Christianity’s enemies; today we look back on is a long history of the church executing heretics, Jews, Muslims, and witches.
It would be wise for those of us who desire to be Jesus’ followers to remember that the way of Jesus is the way of sacrificial love, not coercive force. The ever-growing desire within American Christianity to influence state and federal government to enforce our own beliefs and moral convictions should be a wake-up call. Only when we have lost the power of love (the power of the cross) to influence our society do we seek to use the power of the sword.
Someone recently asked me, “So are we just to let our society go to hell in a handbasket?” I want to be clear. None of this means we should do nothing; it simply means that we should choose to influence our society by setting in motion non-violent, humble, self-sacrificial, service-oriented, other-centered love. Having had love awakened in us through the revelation of God’s love for us, we endeavor to awaken love in those around us by allowing ourselves to be a conduit of God’s radical love for them, too!
Jesus and the authors of the Gospels identified the quest for political and nationalistic power to be a temptation of Satan (Luke 4:7-7). It’s the wrong direction for Christianity to take.
I pray that these words put down deep roots. We’ll continue next week with “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”
Keep living in love and building the Kingdom. Lay down the sword, fellow follower of Jesus, and embrace not just the message of the cross, but the way of the cross as well.
I love you guys.
I’ll see you next week.