This appears to have happened on Tuesday of Holy Week, as the local poobahs were looking for some way to put the screws on Jesus. Since, to the impure, everything is impure, the politicos and wheeler dealers in the Temple elite naturally assumed Jesus was a purely political animal like them. So they asked him a question designed to alienate either the crowds or the Romans, all from behind big, buttery smiles, of course:
They asked him, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, “Show me a coin. Whose likeness and inscription has it?” They said, “Caesar’s.” 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 not able in the presence of the people to catch him by what he said; but marveling at his answer they were silent. (Lk 20:21–26).
Unlike the modern Libertarian “tax is theft” kook, Jesus recognized that we really did owe Caesar something and had no problem paying his taxes. The state is, like the incarnate Son of God, bound by the crudities of a world that needs money in order to function and Jesus therefore paid his taxes like every other peasant. It was Caesar’s dough so let him have it. Caesar had a real role to play in the world, keeping order and dealing out justice in a fallen world. At the same time, Jesus nourished no illusions about the fact that Caesar was fallen just like the rest of mankind. He knew perfectly well that by Friday, the state ordained by God to serve justice would commit the gravest miscarriage of justice in the universe and put the Son of God to death on a cross.
And yet, for all that, he still said, “Render unto Caesar…” He understood that human law is a blunt instrument and could only crudely approximate justice at best. But crude is better than nothing.
Jesus, of course, was not seeking earthly power. His claim to be a king was real, but not of this world. And so, while he calls his disciples to renew the temporal order in whatever sphere they find themselves (and that will eventually include the political when the Church Christianizes the Empire centuries later) he nonetheless insists that he has no intention of theocracy. When people come to him to have him settle their silly family spats about money, the Judge of All the Earth says, “Who made me judge over you?” He does not want that kind of power and he does not want money. Caesar can handle that trivia. He wants hearts and souls.
Uncle Screwtape gets that, which is why he wants us to sacrifice the Kingdom to the World. AS he instructs Wormwood concerning the patient he is laboring to tempt to damnation:
Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which religion becomes merely part of the ‘cause’, in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war-effort or of Pacifism. The attitude which you want to guard against is that in which temporal affairs are treated primarily as material for obedience. Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what worldly end he is pursuing.”
Those of us who think it of grave importance to call Christians away from their present prostitution to the pursuit of worldly power in the Party of Trump must bear in mind our own deadly peril. For it is fatally easy to make the defeat of this idolatrous political cultus as much an idol as the cultus has of Trump and his pomps and works and empty glamours.
We must keep our minds and hearts fixed on Jesus, not on Winning. Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and everything else will be added as well. Our goal is eternity, not Saving America. It is healing the Church and bringing repentance, not utopia.