October 22, 2023
Would Jesus be a Democrat or a Republican?
I hope no one has already bolted out the door after seeing my sermon title. I realize that, with the disarray in the House of Representatives and another potential government shut-down looming, we are all about eyeball deep in politics right now, and the last thing you want to hear from the pulpit is more of what you are already sick of (or sick from, perhaps). But I assure this is not a “political” sermon. In fact, it’s perhaps an explanation of why “political” sermons should not be heard from this pulpit. Allow me to elaborate.
Let’s begin with the jolting question: Would Jesus be a Democrat or a Republican? Well, here’s some evidence to consider: Jesus clearly chose not to affiliate himself with any of the political parties of his day. He had a member of the Zealots among his disciples (the one referred to as Simon the Zealot) but Jesus did not join the party. He seemed to have equal contempt for both the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and couldn’t be placed in either camp. He was clearly not among the Essenes. He was not a Herodian and he showed allegiance to neither the Roman authorities nor the rulers of the Sanhedrin.
In our reading from Matthew this morning, Jesus famously responds to the trap set for him by the Pharisees and the Herodians by asking for a coin and, noting that Caesar’s image appeared on it, he said, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” I don’t think this necessarily meant that he was siding with them and advocating that Jews in Judea should pay the Roman poll tax rather than revolt against foreign rule. He wasn’t aligning himself with either the Herodians or the Zealots. He was offering a bit of perspective, and, as I read it, minimizing the value of the currency (and therefore, perhaps, belittling the intensity of the argument to begin with). In essence, he was saying: “This is a trinket with Caesar’s picture on it; let him have it; the Lord of Life reigns over all that truly matters in this world.”
But to say that Jesus was not a member of the Zealot party does not mean that he was without zeal. He was clearly a man of passion who pursued the causes of his life and his world with a fiery spirit. He demonstrated his zeal for justice in many ways. The first thing Jesus did after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem was to turn over the tables of the profiteering money-changers who were taking advantage of those of meager means. Then he drove them out of the temple with a whip. And he revealed that passion for justice by the shocking company he kept: he moved among the outcasts, healed the lepers, spoke with women, lifted up the racial minorities of his day as examples of virtue; and yet he dined with Pharisees, and conversed compassionately with the despised tax collector. He was a man who enjoyed having a good time with friends, as is evidenced by his grand showing at the wedding feast at Cana and by the charges made by some that he was a “glutton and a drunkard.” But when it came to calling a spade a spade, he did not mince words. Accusing the scribes and Pharisees of murdering innocents and laying heavy burdens on the backs of those too weak to bear them, he called them a “brood of vipers” because, in his words, “you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” Jesus may not have been a card-carrying member of the party of the Zealots, but he was most certainly a man of great zeal for justice and mercy.
What does this have to say to us in the year 2023? Well, if Caesar’s image was stamped on the Roman coin and thus it belonged to him, whose image is stamped on the coinage of our lives? In Tennyson’s Idylls of the King the monk Ambrosius is speaking to Percivale about the knights of the Round Table and says:
“For good ye are and bad, and like to coins, Some true, some light, but every one of you Stamp’d with the image of the King . . .”
It is our place – the place of the church – to be the coinage stamped with the image of Christ. And if the church is to model itself on the ministry of Jesus – if we are to be the coins stamped with his image – the church would be well advised to pay attention to both his shunning of political allegiance and his passion for issues of faithfulness and justice. So there is a far greater reason for the church to avoid supporting political parties or candidates than wishing to maintain our 501(c)(3) tax exempt status. Our reason for doing so is based on the example of Jesus who pointed to the supremacy of allegiance to the Great Author of Truth that he figuratively referred to as his Father. And that makes all other human institutions, systems, and mediums pale in significance. And that is why you should never hear a “political” sermon from this pulpit; never a political party favored, a political candidate endorsed, or a political platform advocated.
Does that mean that we should avoid all issues that become part of our national political discussion? Absolutely not. Because to do so would also be to flee from the example set for us by Jesus.
Would Jesus endorse either Joe Biden or Donald Trump? I think not. But I think he would have something to say about the treatment of women. Even in his day, when women were clearly regarded by the culture in which he lived as subservient to men, advised to not speak to men in public arenas, and cordoned off in the back of the Temple, Jesus healed women, including a foreigner; he lifted up a poor woman of the street as an example for the Pharisees, and he spoke to and offered the blessing of new life to a woman who was one of the despised Samaritans. He also had some rather strict notions of fidelity and propriety for men dealing with women. He said, “I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” That’s a bit higher standard of conduct than most of us can profess to adhere to. I’m reminded of Jimmy Carter famously saying in a interview, “I have committed adultery many times in my heart.” (I recall the joke that went around at the time that My Heart was the name of a hotel outside Plains, Georgia). But even though Jesus’ standards are beyond most of us, they do call us to a higher level of respect for gender equality. No, I don’t think Jesus would tell us for whom to vote, but I think he would have quite a bit to say about the treatment of women.
I don’t think Jesus would endorse either of the Democratic or the Republican parties, but I think he would have quite a bit to say about economic justice. In fact, he did have quite a bit to say: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Quoting the prophet Isaiah, he described his ministry in these terms: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free. He said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.”
I don’t think Jesus would tell us for whom to vote, but I think he would have something to say about honesty and truthfulness. I think he would have something to say about militarism. I think he would have something to say about the use and abuse of power. I think he would have something to say about racial justice and ethnic or even religious discrimination.
I think people frequently conflate politics and issues. They are not the same. I can’t tell you how many times in the course of my ministry someone has made some remark to me about there being “too much politics in church”, by which they mean they are hearing about issues of social justice from the pulpit. I have never apologized for addressing economic disparity, racial justice, gender equality, justice and equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered folks, or a host of other issues, and I never will. The Church needs to be apolitical; it needs to refuse to endorse or promote specific political parties and candidates. But it must stand for issues and values that are central to the themes and currents of the gospel. And for preaching to be relevant, it must address those issues and values that are alive and under debate in the broader culture.
I confess that this all means that there is, on occasion, a difficult line to be drawn. I am very aware that justice issues can often rub up against party platform planks. That leaves every preacher with the preparatory task that my mentor, Gene Bartlett, set for all of us when he advised that when writing a sermon every pastor must ask him or her self: “Am I being prophetic, or do I have an axe to grind?” I assure you that I ask myself that question every time I sit down at the computer to prepare a sermon. I make no claim to perfection in my response to that question, but you can be confident that I grapple with it honestly.
But the principle applies to our entire experience as a congregation. I know there are times when, in coffee hour or other groups, folks inevitably veer off into political discussions. I think it behooves us all to think carefully about the tenor, the direction, and the intent of such conversations, and to keep asking ourselves the preacher’s question. I think it is on the agenda for all of us to focus as clearly as possible on the themes of the gospel and to reflect on the words and witness of Jesus. And it is important for us to act upon our convictions, in the footsteps of the passionate Christ, to support initiatives that are promoting the causes and issues that we believe are most grounded in gospel values. I’m not suggesting that everyone should register as an independent, but we should be supporting those causes and individuals who speak and act for those things we value as followers of Christ. The church doesn’t have a vote, but you do.
This has been a long way around of responding to the question, “Would Jesus be a Democrat or a Republican?” I suggest that he would be neither. But I bet he would have a lot to say about what’s going on in America and in the world right now, and how it touches our lives and calls us to respond.