Did Jesus Act Politically?

Recently, political issues have been at the forefront of public discourse unlike any other time in history. Part of this is due to the advent of social media, as now news travels at the blink of an eye and everyone is plugged in. Every political faction argues for its positions, and many invoke God and Jesus Christ in support of their politics. While positions on social and moral issues may indeed be in line with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it is important that we carefully examine whether we can invoke Christ's support for any given political party or movement. In the following article I provide several examples where Christ acts/speaks politically and then weigh them to see if indeed He was a political partisan. Your responses are invited.

 1. Matthew 22:15-221

The Pharisees, not wanting Jesus to continue to have influence over the masses, devised a political trap for him. They came to him in public and noted that Jesus is not swayed by someone's status in society, an implicitly political statement of itself.

You aren't swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar, or not?

Jesus could clearly see the trap. If he said yes without qualification, then many who followed him would be upset by it. They lived under the injustice of Roman occupation and viewed such taxation as oppressive, especially to the poor among them, many of whom were followers of Christ. However, if he said no, the governing authorities could denounce him as a political agitator and insurrectionist and would have reason to turn him over to the authorities for punishment. Jesus openly exposes their intention and undermines them.

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

"Caesar's," they replied.

Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's.”

When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.

This response of Christ was consistent with his message of the Kingdom of God, specifically with regard to it being a wholly separate kingdom from the political structure, ideologies, laws and even expectations of the purely human kingdoms of humanity. The Kingdom of God begins in the hearts of men who know, love and serve God, having His Name inscribed upon them. The self sacrifice of the citizen of the Kingdom of God is one's entire life, being of far greater value than the tribute demanded by Caesar. Jesus was able to speak to the greater principle without falling into the trap of political insurrection. If a government mints the coinage and it bears the image of that government's “great men”, then the money belongs to that government. We, however, are God's possession. This is essentially a non-partisan, apolitical position on the part of Jesus, neither siding with the politically rebellious nor the oppressor.

2. Luke 13:32

In this example, Jesus is teaching when a group of Pharisees come to him with a warning that Herod wants to put Jesus to death, and he should leave the area. The scriptures tell us:

He replied, “Go tell that fox, 'I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.'

This is an example of Christ being politically provocative in the execution of His ministry. Ellicot's Commentary2 on this verse informs us that the use of the word “fox” was deliberately provocative, as it is a feminine gender word. The use of this feminine word may have been designed to point out Herod's lack of masculinity, since he was viewed as being submissive to Herodias. As a result, Herod's actions were those of a sneaky, crafty woman and not those of a masculine ruler. It also seems likely that the warning was given as part of a scheme on the part of the Pharisees to scare Jesus out of the area. If this was indeed the case, it failed miserably. Jesus clearly did not fear political power but makes it clear that He will not stop His mission. In fact, in his statement that “on the third day I will reach my goal”, He prophetically declares His victory even in the face of such political opposition. In this case, Jesus takes a sort of political provocateur image, taking a defiant stand against not only the Pharisees, but also the most powerful rulers of that time and place. It would be easy to see in Christ a sort of revolutionary figure, if we were to take this example alone, which would be a grave error, in my opinion.

3. Matthew 17:24-27

In our final example, Jesus and His disciples have arrived in Capernaeum when tax collectors find Peter and ask him whether Jesus paid his taxes or not. Peter affirms he does and subsequently, when he is with Jesus, a discussion is started by Christ on the topic.

“What do you think, Simon?”, he asked. From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes-from their own children or from others?

“From others,” Peter answered.

“Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.”

This specific tax finds its origin in Exodus 30:11-16, wherein an annual tax is to be collected for the service of the tent meeting at the time of Moses. Now, over 1000 years later it is still being collected, even though the priests no longer used a tent, but had a temple. According to the Bible Says3 commentary on this passage:

Under the Roman occupation during Jesus' day the tax was permitted by the Romans, but no one was legally required to pay it. But even though it was voluntary, it was expected that every righteous Jew would pay it.

There are some subtle Messianic issues at play in these verses as well, but we will focus only on the political aspects here. Jesus tells Peter that even though they have no legal requirement to pay this tax they will do so as to not cause offense. In a modern context we could also say that His example is that we too should pay whatever taxes are levied by the State so as not to offend against our neighbor who dutifully pays his, as well as to avoid legal problems. It doesn't matter if we view the tax to be unjust or not representative of true need, our duty is simply to pay it since our focus is not on this world, but on the Kingdom of God. Again, it seems to me that Jesus is taking a non-partisan position.

Public Response

I shared these examples with two people of very opposite political viewpoints so as to get a broader perspective.

Mark S.-Mark is a self-identified Progressive who consistently votes Democrat and is very socially liberal. His response to Matthew 22:15-22 was wholly negative. He argued that Jesus was supporting an oppressive regime that ruled through violence and extortion of taxes from a mostly poor populace. When I pointed out that all governments rule by threat of violence on some level and all collect taxes, he responded that this is part of the problem of the world's governments; instead of dealing with people honestly and seeking world peace, they all wanted to start wars for profit, while the innocent always suffers. His response to Luke 13:32 was somewhat more positive. He liked Jesus' use of the word “fox” to describe Herod and liked that Jesus was defiant in the face of political opposition to His doing good things for the people. His response to Matthew 17:24-27 was that Jesus again failed to “do the right thing” and oppose an unjust tax from an out-of-control government.

My personal response to Mark & those who share his view is as follows: While I recognize that Rome was an oppressive regime, Jesus wasn't focused on worldly government or political activism. He had a significantly non-partisan approach to most of the issues, even those where He recognized the authorities were wrong. Mark's stated beliefs also fly in the face of his own political actions in voting for politicians and a political party that has a clearly documented history of raising taxes on everyone, regardless of income level. Also, those same politicians have demonstrated that they will use force and intimidation to maintain their own positions of power when push comes to shove. This places Mark in the difficult position of saying one thing but supporting another. It is essentially political hypocrisy. I would impress on Mark the focus of Jesus on the Kingdom of God rather than on political activism. Even though Jesus could be politically provocative with His words at times, at no point did He ever advocate for any political party, movement or activism. His rebellion to authority, such as it was, is centered not on the politics as much as on the sin of those politicians who sought to assert themselves over the Kingdom of God, of which He is Sovereign. Jesus is not a tax protestor, a revolutionary building a power base to overthrow the Romans, nor is He seeking to be a mere human politician. He seeks to get to the root of all of the social and economic ills of humanity by addressing their cause-sin. It is this sin which separates humanity from God, and that separation renders man powerless to adequately address the social and moral ills of human society. No matter how much Man strives for the perfect government and perfect culture, he will fail because he is a fallen, fallible being.

Sandra D.-Sandra is a self-identified Conservative with no party affiliation. Her response to Matthew 22:15-22 was positive. She recognized that taxes are necessary and even if we feel they are unjust, we should still pay them. She stated that if we feel they are unjust then we should seek legal action to have the tax either changed or abolished. Her response to Luke 13:32 was much the same as Mark's. She liked that Jesus had used the word “fox” to describe Herod and noted that we have a lot of foxes in government today. She also agreed that Jesus was not being a revolutionary here, He was simply telling the truth about a crooked politician in a way that probably drew a few laughs. She expressed the opinion that political violence, such as that seen in the activities of Antifa, is always wrong. In response to Matthew 17:24-27, she again agreed with my take on the issue, adding that if we want to change such things we are to go through the political process.

My response to Sandra & others who share her view would be as follows: While I would certainly agree that some level of taxation is necessary to maintain a functioning nation, at no point do I see any hint in the teachings of Christ that we are to take political action to change things. I'm not suggesting that any given populace should simply accept whatever the government does to them, but I am saying that we have to be careful about projecting our own political views on Jesus. She is correct in saying that Jesus was no revolutionary. However, Sandra is undoubtedly a supporter of the American Revolution, which she would very likely say was justified due to the colonies being oppressively taxed and having no representation to speak to the issues. If, as Sandra correctly says, political violence is wrong, then she is in the position of hypocrisy in denouncing Antifa violence yet supporting the violent uprising of the colonies against the British Crown. You cannot have it both ways. If political violence is always wrong, then it is as wrong for your heroes to engage in as it is your enemies. 

I find nothing in the teachings of Jesus that require political activism of any sort in order to be His disciple, whether for so-called Conservative causes or Progressive causes. His position is transcendental to mere human politics. His Kingdom is not of this world, and it begins in the minds and hearts of those who accept Him as their Master and Savior. Doing so necessarily requires a change in worldview, which in turn implies significant changes in how we view political and social problems. The answer to the problems of taxes, illegal immigration, terrorism, globalism, etc. isn't found in passing yet another bill or voting for the newest politician who says all the things we want to hear, but in changing the hearts and minds of people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Once our hearts and minds have been renewed through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, we can perhaps see our world a little more clearly and recognize that while we do have a responsibility to do our best with temporal, secular problems and issues that arise, we must recognize that no matter how much we work to make this world better it will never reflect the Kingdom of God, which is our true hope for the future of humanity. So, engage in your political activism if you wish, and certainly support good, just causes, since to do so is to be "salt" and "light" to a culture that is substantively anti-Christ. But don't make the mistake of claiming Christ is for any particular political party or political platform. His Kingdom is not of this world & neither is yours.