Caesar became the emperor of the Roman empire – possibly one of the most successful empires the world has ever known. It was strong militarily and economically. It lasted for centuries. It had major technological impacts on civilization. It brought about order and governmental practices and ideas that the world still holds onto today. When it fell, many other kingdoms wanted to be the torch bearers of Rome. Yet the idea of Caesar as a type of god persisted – someone to be emulated in deed and thought.
Caesar had many titles – Lord of Lords, King of Kings, Savior of the world. Sound familiar?
They should. These are titles that Christians have claimed for Jesus since Jesus roamed around Palestine. Throughout time though, humanity and even the church itself have wavered on this – gone back and forth as to who really is Lord of Lords, King of Kings, and Savior of the world. This wavering showed up in terms of ideas like divine right kings, the Crusades, Just War theory, and more.
Caesar is alive and well and has been over the centuries. He just shows up in different places and as different leaders through time. Caesar is a generic title for me, but has real life implications. Caesar thrives in times of anxiety, violence, anger, and fear. Caesar’s favorite pastime is war. Caesar’s way is the way the world embraces.
To follow Caesar means that the enemy must be crushed, that the enemy is not human and so it can be killed without mercy, that ruthlessness is a virtue, that violence is the way to victory, that the ends justify the means, that we are to pick up the sword, or gun, or any other weapon and follow Caesar, that might makes right, that the strong survive, that nature must be made to submit, that mercy is a sign of weakness, that Caesar is all-powerful.
But if we claim that Jesus is Lord, them Caesar is not. And Caesar’s ways are wrong, evil. They lead to death and destruction. Jesus’ ways are far different and the world doesn’t like Jesus way.
In the Gospel reading assigned for this coming Sunday, we hear this:
He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
(Mark 6:1-6, NRSV)
The key phrase in this passage is in verse 3 – “And they took offense at him.” The people who knew him best rejected Jesus as Lord and his way. Why would anyone reject God’s way? No wonder “He was amazed at their unbelief.”
If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not. If Jesus is King of Kings, then Caesar is not. If Jesus is Savior, then Caesar is not. If this is what we claim about Jesus, then we are called to follow his way, not Caesar’s way – ever. We are to be theologians of the cross and call the thing what it is – evil. Caesar’s ways are evil and wrong.
If we claim to be followers of Jesus, we are claiming something that the world rejects and takes offense to. And Caesar and his followers will lash out at those who claim Jesus as Lord and Savior. Caesar and his followers will attempt to crush anyone who will not take a knee in front of Caesar. Caesar and his followers will use violence against anyone who dares to claim that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. These aren’t exaggerations – Caesar has been doing this over the centuries. Why would Caesar change now?
If we claim to be followers of Jesus, then we ask the follow questions: pertaining to government – Is this policy assisting in the unfolding of the Kingdom of God, or the expansion of Caesar’s empire? Is this policy Christ-like – Christ the King, ruler of the universe, or would Caesar be proud? Pertaining to us individually – Is what I am doing or saying Christ-like or Caesar-like? Which banner am I hoisting high in my speech and action – Jesus or Caesar?
If we claim Jesus as Lord of Lords, King of Kings, and Savior of the World, then we are to love our enemies, not kill them and crush them. Love is the only way. Peace is a way of living, not a destination that comes after you have eliminated your enemies.
If we claim that Jesus is Lord of Lords, then the means and the way of living matter more than the ends.
If we claim to be followers of Jesus, then we answer the call to pick up our cross, deny ourselves, and follow him. We will turn the other cheek when we are struck, not retaliate, seek revenge, and strike back.
If we claim Jesus is Savior of the World, then we recognize that God loves the poor, the weak, the outcast, the other and calls on us to love them also and to act when there is injustice, not sit idly by and watch people suffer.
If we claim to be a part of Jesus’s Kingdom, then we will welcome the stranger in our midst, not fear them and turn away to what for many will be sure death.
If we claim Jesus as Lord, then we are stewards of creation, not those that ravage the earth in a lustful manner.
If we claim Jesus as King of Kings, then we believe that God is merciful, offers forgiveness, and that love is the only way. These aren’t signs of weakness. They are banners of God.
Claiming Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not is not passive. It comes with an active faith that cajoles us out of our comfort zone and inconveniences us in ways we do not expect. All of this doesn’t mean that sit around passively and let the world go to hell – in order to maintain a false sense of civility, which is really just comfort for the oppressor – for Caesar and his followers. It means we are called to live in a way that is far different from the world of Caesar. Caesar was threatened by Jesus and his way – that is why Jesus was killed by Caesar and the empire.
We speak out about injustices because God cares for those who experiences injustice and likewise we act, and we are to be with them – because their loss is our loss.
We speak out when people are dehumanized and devalued, equated with animals and bugs, because it goes against the imago dei – the image of God. It is an assault on God’s family.
We speak out and act when there is violence – not responding with violence, but something far different. Something that the world doesn’t understand. We put an end to violence and the means to carry out violence. Violence is not even an attractive option and makes no sense in the way of Jesus.
We proclaim Good News. The world needs to hear Good News. But many will reject this news, reject Jesus as Lord and Savior, because they are dedicated to Caesar and his ways.
Some will hear the Good News and their lives will change. Some will reject it, preferring the path of Caesar. So what? We aren’t called to convince everyone or make everyone comply – those ways are the ways of Caesar. We proclaim and invite people into a new way of living. We can’t control how people will respond. We rejoice with those that respond and take on a new life, we weep for those that reject Jesus and his way. And we wipe the dust from our feet from those who will not receive the Good News. Who’s next? There are more who need to hear the Good News, to experience Jesus transformation, and to be invited into the Kingdom of God where Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.
Some will, some won’t, so what, who’s next.
Jesus is Lord. Caesar is not. Not by a long shot. It’s not even close.