Apples and Oranges

Of all the divisive rhetoric I saw posted during the election season, there was one back and forth I engaged in that bothered me the most. Not because it was mean, but because my friend made an important error.

Referring to the episode in Jesus’ ministry when he was asked if it was lawful (in this case, moral) to pay taxes to Caesar, my friend said, “this shows that even Jesus was okay with the Roman government.” I think that’s a misinterpretation, and perhaps even a rationalization.

Jesus used the inscription on the coin itself to illustrate that the discussion that day – and it continues to this day – is in reality one that compares apples and oranges.  We’re talking about two different kingdoms here, and one is to take precedence over the other.  “Look, he and his government made the coins. Go ahead and give it back to them. You’re talking about worldly stuff. Taxes. Money. Roads. Aqueducts. Paying taxes doesn’t necessarily mean you support everything they do.” I do not think Jesus was okay with the Roman government, with its pantheon of gods or many or its many other practices offensive to Jews of his day. I don’t think he had decided to simply go along in order to get along. I think he was making it clear that politics is one thing, faith and religion another. One is supposed to influence the other, if it’s the most important one that does so. Allowing the secondary and more temporal concern to compromise the first one is a very dangerous thing.

“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s”. For the person of faith, there should be a clear understanding about which of those two is most important. A person who says, “I’m a member of (whatever) political party, so that’s why I hold this (whatever) moral viewpoint” is allowing forces other than God, the teachings of our Lord, or the Holy Spirit to guide us. And those forces are shaky, at best. They depend upon votes (and in some cases, military power) for their rule. Rather, it should be that “because of my faith and my understanding of what God requires, I support this political party or position.” That is a foundation that may grow and become more nuanced over time but is grounded in true and lasting authority of another type.

It is loyalty to what is most important that allows us to continue to live as persons of determined faith regardless of who or what party is in power. There is no doubt that politics can either bless or wreak havoc on the lives of people who reside within that government’s bounds. But when we allow party or personality to become our top loyalty, we lose the footing that determines our constancy, regardless of election results.

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Dr. Kevin Tully is pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Waxahachie, Texas.

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