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Playing Politics 玩弄政治

Sermon passage: (Luke 20:20-26) Spoken on: February 17, 2021
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Luke

Tags: LUKE 路加福音

Listen to sermon recording with the play button or download with the download link. 您可点播或下载讲道录音。
About Rev. Wong Siow Hwee: Rev. Wong is the moderator of Jubilee Church, serving there since 2002. 王晓晖牧师是禧年堂的主理牧师。自2002年,在那牧会将近20年。
Bible passage (ESV) of the sermon can be found at the bottom of the page.

Title: Playing Politics
Date: 17th Feb 2021
Preacher: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee

Today’s sermon will be slightly unusual because I will be teaching you how to play politics. For those who are unfamiliar with the phrase, to “play politics” is to say or do things for political reasons like gaining popularity. When you play politics and look good in front of the people, you don’t need to worry about doing the right thing which might often involve personal sacrifices. Playing politics allows you to survive in any situation, whether it is at work or at home.

Some of you might protest, “Pastor, I don’t know why you are teaching us how to play politics. We are already experts in playing politics, probably even much better than you. You are in church all the time, whereas we are out there in our workplaces navigating the treacheries of office politics all the time. Playing politics is how we survive every day. Maybe I should be the one teaching you how to play politics instead.”

My dear brothers and sisters, I have no wish to belittle your life experiences in playing politics. However, though you may think that you are already very good in playing politics, you have not yet learned from the very best: the teachers of the law and the chief priests of Jesus’ time. They are the ones with a proven track record of survival at the highest level of political battles. Just think about all the major players in their context. On one hand, those Jewish leaders had to handle Roman politicians like Pontius Pilate the governor. Many of these Roman politicians are conniving crooks who would stab you in the back literally, just ask Julius Caesar. On the other hand, the Jewish leaders also have to deal with the notorious royal family of Herod. By the time of Jesus’ ministry, his scheming sons and daughters that had inherited bits and pieces of his kingdom still have influence everywhere in the region. [1] The teachers of the law and the chief priests of Jesus’ time therefore had to play politics to satisfy the demands and power struggles coming from both sides.

But balancing the whims and fancies of these two difficult bosses were nothing compared to the complexity of handling the Jewish people under them. History has repeatedly shown that the Jews were fiercely independent against foreign rulers and were often easily incited into an insurrection for political freedom (See Acts 5:36-37). So the Jewish leaders were like the first mate of a pirate ship with two quarreling captains above, and under them, a crew who is ever ready for a mutiny. Yet, as religious authorities, they had to clamp down on their nationalistic zeal, while still maintaining their righteousness on the basis of the laws of Moses. [2] If they show too much deference to the Romans and the Herodian nobilities, they will be disregarded by the people as traitors to their Jewish faith.

This is where teachers of the law and the chief priests of Jesus’ time show their masterful expertise in playing politics. One of the key gripes of the people is taxation. The Roman taxation in Judea is especially detested by the Jews because “the Roman silver coin, used for paying the tax, bore the portrait of the emperor and an inscription describing him as “son of God” and “high priest.” Strict Jews therefore regarded it as idolatrous and so refused to use it.” [3] How did the teachers of the law and the chief priests manage the delicate dance of appeasing both the authorities and the people on such a contentious matter?

They did this by being very quick to condemn the tax-collectors like Zacchaeus as sinners (Luke 19:7, see also 5:29-30). They conveniently channeled the grievances of the people towards this group of government agents. In the period of the Roman principate, the annual poll taxes and land taxes were collected directly by Roman officials (cf. Tosef., Dem. 6:3), but they needed the local tax collectors for the daily customs, tolls, and similar taxes. [4] So the teachers of the law and the chief priests eagerly piled the hate onto these local tax-collectors. “They are sinners who exploit the people by collecting taxes for the Romans. You should not even eat and drink with such sinners.” In this way, these religious leaders are perceived as righteous and standing alongside the Jewish people.

But these religious leaders needed to collect tax from the people as well. They run the Jerusalem Temple, which is technically government property. So temple taxes were collected annually just before Passover. By taxing the people, aren’t the Jewish leaders sinners as well? So the Jewish religious leaders designed a system. They had money changers at the Temple, who would change pilgrims’ money into the special Tyrian coinage without the emperor’s image, and this coin would be specially used for temple offerings. And the religious leaders let it be known that such compromises were necessary because by paying such taxes, the higher authorities would allow their Jewish worship to continue in peace. Such tax-collections are therefore not sinful because it is for worship and the coins used are not idolatrous. With such justifications, these masters of playing politics manage to solidify their positions and achieve the perfect balance of keeping those above and those below happy.

Well, it was perfect until Jesus came along. Now Jesus was a teacher with a reputation to “speak and teach what is right, and (he) does not show partiality but teaches the way of God in accordance with the truth.” (Luke 20:21) The problem with people like Jesus is that they do not appreciate the beautiful game of playing politics. The conflict with Jesus first started with the differences on the interpretation of the Sabbath laws (6:11). The religious leaders insisted on a legalistic understanding of rest, but Jesus said what is lawful is to do good and save lives (see Luke 13:10-17). It is impossible to play politics with people like Jesus, because to them, the true essence of the law matters more than making sure everything looks prim and proper. What is right matters more than what are popular.

Then the conflicts with Jesus turned confrontational as he rebuked them in Luke 11: 39 “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 42 “Woe to you Pharisees, because … you neglect justice and the love of God. 53 When Jesus went outside, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, 54 waiting to catch him in something he might say.

This inside/outside accusation attacked the heart of the matter, which was the difference between the values of Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders. For people who play politics, appearances matter more than anything. This is why they “love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces” (11:43). But Jesus stripped them of their superficial façade, and exposed their corrupted inner nature: they had oppressed the people while being in cahoots with the Romans and the Herodians. They claim that the tax-collectors are sinners, but they are also the ones that set up all kinds of religious laws for taxation that “load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and will not lift one finger to help them.” (11:46)

Oh dear, this is why Jesus had to die. He upset the delicate balance of the social contract between the authorities and the people. There was an unwritten social contract where these people would give up their freedom so that these Jewish leaders can govern with their own version of law and order. You think they like the Romans or the Herodians? Of course not. But the pretense of politics allows them to stay in power.

Luke 19: 47 Every day … the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him. 48 Yet they could not find any way to do it, because all the people hung on his words. That is the problem. Luke 20: 19 The teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest him immediately. But they were afraid of the people.

But no worries. This is why I said the chief priests and the teachers of the law are the true gurus of playing politics. The people supported Jesus only because they think that Jesus is the king, the Messiah (Luke 11:38), though he had never publicly admitted it. But he cannot sustain such support without eventually paying the price: judgment from the governing authorities. Since Jesus denounced the pretensions of the Jewish leaders, then let him declare his true stand about taxation in front of the people. Let’s see how he survives without playing politics with the people. Either he would admit that taxation is a necessary part of the social contract, and he is a puppet of the Romans just like us, or better yet, he would reject the taxation and there will be concrete proof that he is an insurrectionist. Didn’t he claim to be the heir to the vineyard (Luke 20:14)? Then let him die like a “king”.

We are familiar with what comes next.
22 “Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
23 He saw through their duplicity and said to them, 24 “Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
25 He said to them, “Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

Jesus meant that since the coin has the image of Caesar, it belongs to Caesar, but since we believe we are made in the image of God, then we belong to God. Jesus was again not playing politics as some might assume, even though he came up with an answer that would not be a chargeable offense to the Romans, and yet keep the people happy by being theologically correct. If you read Matthew 22:22, Mark 12:17 and Luke 20:26, the people who were truly amazed were the same people who were trying to trap him: the Jewish leaders and their spies. Why were they astonished and silenced?

I must confess that I started this sermon trying to teach you how to play politics, hoping that you might learn a thing or two from the Jewish religious leaders about balancing the different influences to your advantage. I expected to see Jesus’ ideals of doing the right thing crushed by the political traps and schemes. But Jesus’ answer left me in deep thought. What happened to being the image of God? I am always in the midst of political games because of social contracts, the assumption that because I did this for you, so you have to do that for me. But what happened to the most valuable contract of all: our covenant with God? That covenant was forged when God made us in his image. That covenant is not a matter of give and take, like a social contract; it is not a game of win or lose; it is about living according to the purpose of our calling and our identity.

I thought about what Paul said in Romans 13: 6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. In the midst of playing politics and trying to please everybody, I forgot the most important person that we should try to please: it is God, who deserves all honor and praise.

So I think that you have to make a choice about your life, and let that be the starting point of your reflection in this period of Lent. You can choose to go back to playing politics, like what the Jewish leaders did. In Luke 23: 2 And they began to accuse him, saying, “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king.” But I hope that you make a different choice: you decide that your life is more than just a matter of dollars and cents. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, material possessions should not consume our minds or become something to fight about. Give to God what is God’s. To me, that means going back to the true purpose of our lives: to love God completely and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Being made in the image of God means that I treasure my relationship with God more than any authority that can offer me power and strength. That’s why Jesus can do what is right. Being made in the image of God means that I recognize others as God’s creation as well. That’s why Jesus upholds justice rather than superficial righteousness. Being made in the image of God means that I am just a steward of my possessions, and God is the true owner. That’s why Jesus is willing to sacrifice his life for the sake of the salvation of his people. Jesus is the one that I will follow. What about you? Let’s pray.

[1] John the Baptist was beheaded by one of his sons, King Herod Antipas. The Jerusalem Temple was still known as Herod’s Temple.
[2] Laws like “you shall have no other gods before me”, which is difficult to uphold when you have a Roman emperor who claims to be the son of God.
[3] France, Teach the Text Commentary
[4] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/tax-gatherers
[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_contract

Luke 20:20–26 (Listen)

20 So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor. 21 So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God. 22 Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” 23 But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, 24 “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” 25 He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 26 And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent.

(ESV)